A couple months ago, I was talking to a good odar (non-Armenian) friend of mine about my upcoming trip to Armenia in the fall. At the time, I had quit my job and decided to spend a few months volunteering in Armenia as a transition phase into my next life chapter (whatever that may be). I was describing to him what an emotional and powerful moment this would be for me, as going back to our home country and trying to make an impact in some way is a “right of passage” for many young Armenian-Americans. The first time I traveled to Armenia, in 2011, I had participated in a similar immersion program, but this time around felt as if it would be more significant—considering how much I’ve matured since my wide-eyed 19-year-old days.
After listening to my passionate expression of excitement my friend said to me, “I never realized how nationalist you are.”
“Nationalist?” I responded with a chuckle. He explained that he had never heard anyone talk about their ethnic country with such a desire to be included in its journey toward progress and independence. I had also joked with him countless times about how Armenians are not allowed to marry non-Armenians—a joke that plays with the idea that Armenians are known for being exclusive in their fight for cultural longevity. However, his statement still struck me as odd, because I had never really thought of myself as a particularly “nationalist” Armenian, though by default Armenians often present themselves that way, given their history.
In fact, I never really considered myself to be very Armenian at all.
My mother and father are both Armenians born in Lebanon, and they raised my older sisters and me in a typical Armenian household near Philadelphia. I attended an Armenian day school through the 8th grade, and my family actively participated in the Armenian community as I grew up. I went to all the barahanteses (dances), knew various Armenian poems and songs, and had only Armenian friends. I was raised to see myself as an Armenian first, and everything else about me was secondary. That way of life was instilled in us at school and at home, at a young age, in the context of the Armenian Genocide. That genocide, perpetrated by Turkey, killed 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 and remains unrecognized by the Turkish and U.S governments to this day. That tragedy has empowered and united Armenians in the quest to make sure our name and culture are never forgotten again, no matter where in the world we find ourselves. I was taught by my elders and the nuns at my school that to keep this principle alive I would marry an Armenian man and teach my Armenian children these same values all over again.
As I transitioned to high school, I began to distance myself from the Armenian community. The more I began to develop and mature, the more I realized many of my personal values were no longer in line with traditional diasporan Armenian values. I noticed how uncomfortable being around other Armenians made me feel, how I suddenly felt hyperaware of myself and my body in situations that didn’t always feel safe or comforting when they should have. I often felt like I had to tiptoe around other Armenians to avoid being a topic of gossip or ridicule (and this is not necessarily because I was doing anything shameful or “amot”), simply because I never felt like individuality was celebrated in my Armenian community. I’ve heard the conversations—elders gossiping about and denouncing the “amot” Armenians. Dressing in an unfavorable way, dating an “odar,” being gay, not being married by a certain age, not having a lucrative career, or just being a bit “odd”—behavior that seemed perfectly fine and normal in our modern world could make you a hot topic for discussion around any Armenian family’s dinner table. Once I began to understand the dynamics I grew up observing, it became clear to me that living authentically and still being a “good” Armenian may be a difficult venture. The anxiety brought on by this dichotomy ultimately made me feel I had to do everything possible to avoid being one of those buzzed-about Armenians—even if that meant staying out of the community altogether.
Although a large part of me often wanted to denounce various sociopolitical aspects of identifying as Armenian in the U.S., I still desired to be involved in them. I still made the pilgrimage to Armenia back in 2011 and joined the Armenian club in college, which I ironically became the president of. I have even succumbed to the pressures of engaging in community gossip just to prove to myself I could navigate socially. In spite of all that, I have often still felt a sense of discomfort and unworthiness in owning the title “Armenian” because of the heaviness that comes with it. This idea of “survival” has become so intrinsic to Armenianness, that being Armenian feels wrong unless you are constantly reminding yourself and those around you of your identity as one. There is an unspoken fear Armenians carry when confronted with diversity and change—a fear that what we have tried so hard to build and cherish can be taken away again at any moment. Because of our struggle for survival, we have ended up excluding many of the people that our survival depends on. The world around us is evolving, but we continue to try to stand still.
Lately, I have found myself asking this question: What does it mean to be Armenian? I don’t speak Armenian with my parents anymore, I don’t attend Armenian social gatherings, I don’t read the news about Armenia, I don’t feel particularly emotional when I hear Armenian songs. The space to embrace this identity of mine feels so much safer when I pull myself out of the Armenian context. My Armenianness is often the first thing my odar friends remember about me, while I feel least Armenian when I’m around other Armenians. Ultimately, my Armenianness has become an extension of myself that I manipulate situationally.
I feel so privileged to have an opportunity (going to Armenia) that might take me beyond the walls of these community politics; however, sometimes I’m not sure I deserve the authentic Armenia experience because of the disconnect I feel between myself and my Armenian-American community. Does that fact make me less deserving to claim this visit as an important experience that’s part of my development and identity, as a person or an Armenian? This fear has always haunted me—of not being Armenian enough, of not quite fitting the mold.
I’m uncertain, but eager to see, whether my trip to Armenia brings me any closer to an understanding of my culture and identity, and how it will affect the way I live my life and participate in my Armenian community in the U.S.