I am the first member of my household to ever come to Armenia.
Despite being fully Armenian on both sides of my family, circumstance and timing have kept us from ever actually making the trip together. Though I was raised within an active and vibrant Armenian community, the country itself has always felt like a distant image to me, a vision of somewhere that existed in concept and in culture, but not in concrete reality. For this reason, my past four weeks participating in the AYF internship program have felt like the most incredible extended dream, while at the same time being saturated with moment after moment during which I realize: I am finally here. This is where I come from.
It is a bizarre experience to message my family, so very far away, pictures from the different places we have always known about, but never seen. Even the most standard visits—Etchmiadzin, Sardarabad, Tsitsernakaberd—have been dreams come true, moments I have anticipated for as long as I can recall. I have always known these sites to be a part of my heritage, but a piece of me was never certain that I would see them for myself.
In the early days of the trip during a phone call with a friend, I described my feelings this way: all my life, my family and church have served as the anchor of my individual Armenian identity. Yet, sensations that were once confined to my most intimate, warm environments, now float all around me. Sights, scents, flavors, sounds and the rumbling music of the language I always felt so special to be raised with. Though I am the first of my household to come, I feel as though I am in the greatest expansion of home possible.
However, being in Armenia has also brought me face-to-face with the fact that attending university left me with a hole where there was once a cultural environment. Leaving behind my participation in Armenian activities to attend college in a city with virtually no community was an uncomfortable adjustment. Coming to Armenia immediately after graduation has brought me to the realization that life without my culture simply is not enough for me. Being surrounded by people my age who stayed so much closer to their Armenian identity than I did has reignited a hunger in me that I haven’t been reminded of in years. It is a hunger that says: “I need to be a part of this.” It is a hunger that says, “I need to learn how to say ______ in Armenian;” “I need to learn the words to that song;” “I need to learn how to make that dish.” Armenian-ness is something I want to wrap around myself entirely, like a protective blanket.
Though I completed an Armenian Saturday school education, a severe lack of practice has left my language skills rusted. This hasn’t prevented me from thoroughly enjoying our visits and experiences, but I am aware of the disadvantage when I find myself incapable of casually conversing with the different people our group comes across. Whereas most of the interns can utilize their fluency to befriend Armenian AYF-ers, business owners, taxi drivers, and any other member of the host of Armenians we interact with, I find myself too nervous to attempt expressing myself with my clumsy spoken language. Undeniably, I do feel pangs when faced with the wide gaps in my understanding of Armenian – pangs of embarrassment or guilt – but often those feelings are quickly overshadowed by the understanding that I am a product of the involuntary Armenian dispersal. My experience as an Armenian will always be different from the experiences of other Diasporan Armenians. In this understanding, I am able to find a unique sort of pride: the pride of knowing that despite being raised in an American town, still I am here, in my motherland, linked to the people around me by something beautiful and ancient and sacred and strong.
Always, always, I am Armenian. Nobody can ever take that from me. To know this is a privilege, a gift forged from too much pain and the uniquely Armenian insistence on existence. Every moment I get to live in Armenia this summer is a reminder that every Armenian who lived before me suffered, struggled and yet survived so that I might have the chance to sit around a table and sing with my friends, belly full and heart light. Though I have only been in Armenia for a few weeks, I have been endlessly reminded that my opportunity to live as an Armenian is the greatest honor I will ever receive.