From Motherland to Foreignland

Another Side of Being An Immigrant

Illustration by Masha Keryan, Armenian Weekly Design Apprentice

Once upon a time, I lived in Yerevan. Every morning on my way to school, I would look at Mount Ararat and breathe the fresh Yerevan air – feeling inspired and ready for another day in the city I was born and raised. After school, I liked to stop by my favorite bakery – Grand Candy – with my classmates, where we would spend our last daily pocket money on freshly made ponchiks and hot cocoa. And on the weekends, we would meet with my friends on Abovyan Street near the green marble boutiques just across from “Yeritasardi Podzemka” (“Yeritasardakan” metro station’s underground walkway). We would often sneak into different stores in podzemka or shop for books required for our classes. Eventually, we would go to Thomas Twining Tea Café, order vanilla tea, eat crepes filled with condensed milk, and just talk about our ambitious future plans. Those were good times. Those were the times when I knew every corner and angle of Yerevan – even the faces of strangers somehow looked familiar. It felt like Yerevan and I were best friends!

But one day I moved…

I moved to the U.S. in 2013 to earn my Master’s degree and have built my life here since then. First a small town in Illinois welcomed me. I completed my degree and met my husband in Dekalb. Then Minneapolis-Saint Paul in Minnesota – aka the ‘Twin Cities’ – became my new home. I got married here, purchased my first car and property and secured a steady job. Most importantly, I gave birth to my first child here. The Twin Cities has become so dear and special to me!

But, just like many other immigrants from Armenia, I can still smell the air of Yerevan, how its trees bloom in spring and how Abovyan Street merges into Republic Square, which is teeming with people marveling at the musical fountains by night.

Last summer my husband and I made a trip to Yerevan with our daughter. I was looking forward to buying a book for her in my old good “Yeritasardi podzemka,” eat my favorite ponchiks and visit Thomas Twining Café with my husband. While it wasn’t my first visit to Armenia since I moved to the US, this recent trip made me realize just how much both Yerevan and I have changed in such a short period of time.

The “Yeritasardi podzemka” that I knew was gone. It turned into a fancy and beautiful underground mall with fast food restaurants and boutiques. It was so unrecognizable that once I got there, I couldn’t find my way out! I got lost in the place which I could once navigate with my eyes closed. And it was breaking my heart…

Thankfully, my donut cafe was still there, but it seemed like the amount of custard in the donuts had been subtracted. And for whatever reason they didn’t taste the same. Maybe it’s because my palate grew accustomed to overly sweet American desserts, or maybe it was because the place looked empty to me without my friends, who moved to other foreign countries shortly after me.

My favorite Thomas Twining Cafe, once popular among many young Yerevanstis, was never open during my August visit. Even the young people I asked had not heard of it. They had their own favorite cafes, the names of which sounded as alien to me as the names of American restaurants like Perkins and Arby’s did once. These new fancy cafes were designed in modern and trendy ways, offering exotic menus and nearly impeccable customer service.

Of course, I was very happy to see how fast things had been developing in Yerevan. Things were improving, and the city was growing and acquiring a more modern look. I was proud of my new Yerevan! And I know the changes were for the better, but I was feeling a sense of loss in my heart. Things that were so dear to me have been completely erased from the surface. It’s like a part of my identity was erased too.

Yerevan was now a city where you can buy fast food at each corner, where restaurant waiters speak English, foreign tourists mingle with locals, and even the faces of my compatriots look strange! I couldn’t believe just how separated I had become from my city. My nostalgia for old Yerevan was too strong.

Being an immigrant to the U.S., I have had to work hard to fit in, to find new friends, to avoid sounding weird or awkward. I didn’t even notice how much I had assimilated and become ‘American’ in a way.  For example, I no longer wear multiple layers when sitting in my air-conditioned office. I no longer cook five or more dishes and even more snacks for New Year’s Eve. I even have a poinsettia for Christmas!

There is nothing wrong with naturally adapting and assimilating into your new culture. It’s just what you sign up for when you decide to live in a foreign country. However, the outcome of this immigrant life, at least for me, is that when you return to your motherland, that American part of you starts feeling like a tourist. There are just things that you forget about your first home, and you start noticing things that you’ve never noticed before.

For example, I have never paid attention to people walking late at night with their kids. But I noticed this Armenian practice because the ‘Americanized’ part of me is a mother whose daughter goes to bed at eight o’clock each and every night. Americans don’t just go walking late at night with their children, and it seemed alien to me now. I had forgotten that part of my home culture.

In America, restaurants and the stores open early. The whole country seems to wake up at six in the morning to be at work by eight. Yerevan, on the other hand, wakes up much later. It was challenging trying to visit stores or restaurants before 11 a.m.

I still ask Alexa to tell me the weather in Celsius each morning and convert distances to kilometers.

I started feeling as if I don’t completely ‘fit’ in Yerevan anymore – my birthplace, the city of my heart. Worse yet is that I don’t feel like I ‘fit’ in America 100-percent either. I don’t know if I ever will. I still ask Alexa to tell me the weather in Celsius each morning and convert distances to kilometers. While I feel like I know more about the culture of Twin Cities now than Yerevan, Yerevan is still a big part of me and my identity.

As an immigrant, I just need to maintain a balance between my two homes. I realize now that whenever I return to Yerevan, it’s never going to feel the same. Life goes on in Yerevan, whether I’m there or not. Time doesn’t stop. It only stops in my head.

Emma Ohanyan

Emma Ohanyan

Emma Ohanyan-Tri was born and raised in Yerevan. She moved to the US in 2013 and graduated from Northern Illinois University with a master’s in Communication Studies. She currently lives in Saint Paul, MN and works as a Marketing Automation Analyst at Minnesota Public Radio. Emma enjoys traveling, meeting new people, exploring natural parks and writing for her personal blog
Emma Ohanyan

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  1. Unfortunately Armenia for us but fortunately for the thriving republic, Armenia doesn’t really care about us and moves on without us. It feels like seeing an ex boyfriend with a new girlfriend but worse, and you know you shouldn’t be possessive but inside you’re like how dare you go without me, your one true love who doesn’t want to commit right now. It stings a little.

  2. That was a lovely article Emma, I think almost every Armenian can relate to this story. Alas ,nothing stays the same ,childhood memories are forever though .

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