An Armenian in Minnesota

Who would have thought the two cultures could have so much in common?

Many Armenians of the diaspora ended up in California. Another group settled on the east coast. My destiny was in Minnesota.

In 2009, at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University, I won an academic exchange fellowship to study in the U.S for a year. I didn’t have a choice of host university or state; just a month before my departure, I learned that I would be going to Minnesota to attend Minnesota State University-Mankato.

I spent a year in Mankato, a small college town ninety minutes south of Twin Cities. I don’t know if it was the deer hanging out under my dorm room windows, the charming nature trails, or the friendly academic community and cheerful strangers, but I quickly fell in love with my new habitat.

During my time in Mankato, I managed to explore a little bit of Minnesota. My friends and I visited a few national parks, attended the annual Mahkato Pow Wow festival, learned about Native American tribes, and watched a hockey game—a popular sport in the state. Of course, we also experienced the real ‘Minnesnowta’ winter and even managed not to freeze to death.

Upon the completion of my academic year, I returned to Armenia and continued my education there. A few years later, I went to Illinois as a graduate student, and somehow, I fell in love with a guy who happened to be from Minnesota. I knew before we married that we were going to move to Minnesota shortly after my graduation. I’ve learned that most Minnesotans are very patriotic when it comes to their home state, and even when they move out of state, their return is just a matter of time.

The more I have learned about the real character of this land of 10,000 lakes, the happier and more comfortable I have been living here as an Armenian expat. I’ve even found a lot of similarities between Minnesotans and Armenians (at least, the Armenians I know). For example, Minnesotans, like Armenians, have long goodbyes. Each time we visit family or friends, I know we should start putting shoes on at least half an hour before we need to leave. Minnesotans have a habit of starting new conversations during this time, and that’s exactly what saying goodbye to an Armenian family or friend is like. Those farewells can last forever (especially if you know my grandpa).

Minnesotans are also incredibly polite. They don’t take the last piece of anything. A few weeks ago I noticed that someone left half of the last piece of pie in my office kitchen—they just left it sitting on the counter to die in loneliness and neglect! In Armenia, we also live in such a communal way, where we are taught from birth to save the last bite of anything for someone else.

Armenian immigrants have been coming to Minnesota for over a century now. Like many other parts of this country, we have contributed to this state’s history and development, including its railways and bridges. We have launched commercial endeavors and funded philanthropic projects such as Cafesjian’s Carousel in Saint Paul’s famous Como Park. There is now an Armenian church in Saint Paul, St. Sahag, with a wonderful pastor and community leader, Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan.

The Cafesjian Carousel in Como Park (Photo: WCCO, CBS Minnesota)

There are about 200 Armenian families currently living in this small and intimate community, where everyone knows each other. There are enough of us here now that there is always something going on, like festivals, Christmas dinners, bake sales and church events. These opportunities bring us together to remind us of home and help share our culture with others.

Minnesota’s Armenians celebrate everything together. Whether it is a baby shower, a graduation, a house warming party or a wedding, everyone comes together to help with organizing and supporting the events. My husband and I are actively involved in the Armenian church and community. I am fortunate that my community helped me adjust to Minnesota so easily and make me feel like I am truly at home.

I also love it here because, just like in Armenia, people maintain certain traditions (though those traditions are somewhat different from one another!). For example, in Minnesota, people are dedicated to watching Vikings’ football games (and if you happen to be a Green Bay Packers fan, you will be marked a traitor).

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There is also a tradition of eating lutefisk dinners (dried and lye-soaked white fish with a jellied texture) every November and during Easter time. It reminds me of my own Armenian tradition of eating khash (cow foot soup) every winter. Hunting is also a common tradition in Minnesota that brings people together. Most Minnesotans I know, including my husband, spend at least a few days hunting ducks, geese or deer during the fall. It’s something they always look forward to, and the roads are filled with pickups, campers, trailers and ATVs each weekend.

Finally, Minnesotans have their own ‘dialect,’ so to speak. No, they don’t speak like the characters in “Fargo” (that television show, by the way, is actually very annoying to some people here). It is funny how sometimes, even I start speaking Minnesotan without even noticing it. I catch myself more often saying ‘uff-da’ when I express relief or disbelief. I even sometimes say “You bet” instead of “You’re welcome,” even though I prefer the latter.

So at this point, I don’t know if, as an expat, I would feel this comfortable living in any state outside of Minnesota. I love that my state has its own unique character, culture and tradition. And one thing I know for now is that, East or West, Minnesota is best.

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. The Viking trader “Humongous Rolf” frequently visited Ani between 965 and 970 AD, and this is where he learned to say “oof” from the locals, who uttered the word around the clock. He visited Ani not only to trade, but also to eat good food, never having experienced vegetables, chicken, fruit, pepper, salt, olive oil, butter, water, rice, beef, garlic or lamb.

    He taught the expression “oof” to all the Viking traders up and down the Volga, but it was changed to “oof da” for reasons lost to history. Rolf the Humongous (“RTH” to his friends)reportedly wanted in Ani to open “Rolf’s Viking Shack” [specializing in boiled fish] for homesick Volga traders but was tragically killed while trying to steal a pilaf recipe from an Ani medzmayr armed with a lethal bag of walnuts.

  2. Armenians face a lot of bigotry and discrimination in Minnesota. People here are very racist and mean.

  3. I recently found out I am 47% Armenian and most of my biological family is in California. I currently live in MN as well and would love to get to know the culture and the people. Any advice

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