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A Brief Meditation on the Politics of Being Armenian

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.

Mount Ararat from the sky (Photo: Talia Bachekjian)

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.

6 Comments on A Brief Meditation on the Politics of Being Armenian

  1. Thank you for your honesty and courage to articulate things many of us struggle with but usually don’t dare to say.
    My brother has all but denounced his Armenian heritage because of the things you describe. I’m sure he’s not the only one who seeks a more tolerant and open community.

  2. Your words Dalita, express my thoughts very closely, statement by statement my experiences are similar to my while growing up. I too have an urge to visit Armenia & if I can help in any way I certainly will try to do so. Thank you,

  3. Dear Dalita…
    You are a great narrator …You can easily write a novel,
    I enjoyed much reading your honest thoughts …
    I read it all without missing any phrase …
    You are a great, typical hones, good Armenian …
    Continue your dreams, singing your best Armenian song …
    Healthy wishes,
    And Happy journey to your father’s land,
    Sylva~MD~Poetry

  4. avatar Torlach O Duinneach // November 18, 2017 at 7:38 am // Reply

    Dear Ms Khoury – I am Irish with no Armenian connections but with great sympathy for what Armenians suffered. I know at first hand from relatives in the U.K. that the Irish community in the U.K. has many of the same issues. It is probably not as pronounced as with Armenians because we did not suffer a genocide. However a few decades ago it was a real factor, more pronounced than now. It’s part of the immigrant experience.

    The issue of how Armenian is a person of Armenian family that grew up in the US mirrors the issues faced by my first cousin of Irish parentage who grew up in the UK. We also have had a culture gap between some young Irish immigrants and some very prominent in the Irish American community on a range of social issues. In some cases the descendants of Irish immigrants have a perception of Ireland inherited from their parents or grandparents that is either idealised or that has not kept pace with the changes (for better or worse) in contemporary Ireland. This can put both some from both groups at loggerheads on occasion.

    If our diaspora community has these issues despite the common English language it is no surprise that so has the Armenian diaspora. That said I hope you find that most people have enough common sense to accept each other whether Armenians living in Armemia or members of the diaspora and to respect their different but related experiences.Those that do not are foolish because your people have enough real enemies who revel in these divisions.

  5. Both of my parents are Armenian although I did not grow up with a strong Armenian community in my small country home town. So anything I’ve learned about Armenia is through my family or the internet. My parents taught us Armenian before English and I am very thankful for that. Because of my lack of foundational culture from a young age, I am extremely urged to make a trip to Armenia soon with my entire family. We have been in talks for a while. At this point in my life, I have pushed away from the Armenian norms by dating an American and choosing to become a DJ. (I went to a 4 year college and received a bachelors in Biology 3 years ago. I am currently 24.) A lot of my family have made their choices of getting solid jobs and marrying an Armenian but I want to choose somethings differently. I honestly feel it will only enhance our culture further. Do not feel your are an undeserving Armenian. You probably have way more tradition Armenian values to guide you through life than I do. I feel I should say one thing. There is no need to feel your current disconnect makes you undeserving. I believe you may feel the conventional social norms of the Armenians are not best for the longetivity of the culture integrating itself with today’s American culture. That is why you may feel a need to connect with more than just Armenians. I may be wrong on my assumption of you and I apologize if I am but this what goes through my head and I’m only giving your situation context. There are plenty of Armenians who choose the traditional path. Maybe it’s time some make their own choices and allow diversification to occur. I hope you enjoy your trip to Armenian! Thank you for your piece.

  6. avatar AdenéMae Buckley Nalbantian // November 29, 2017 at 6:06 am // Reply

    I liked it, good job cus!

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