In the diaspora, we live a dual identity existence. It is the hyphenated reality. In this country, we enjoy the freedom of the benchmark democracy of the modern world and have built a strong sustainable national heritage presence. The first 70 years of our post-genocide life was about building infrastructure and making the generational transfer from the survivors to those born in the diaspora. Since the independence of Armenia in 1991 and essentially since the earthquake in 1988, the diaspora has embraced an additional responsibility of assisting in the nation building process of a young democracy in Armenia after decades of oppression.
Life within the US diaspora is constantly full of challenges. We use convenient terms such as “diaspora,” but the existence and maintenance of the institution are complex and dependent on the continuous commitment of those who define it. At the core of these concerns is the ability to sustain what has been built for multiple generations. Parents worry about their children retaining their heritage; institutions are concerned about sustainability along with other threatening factors. Sociologists maintain that ethnic identity diminishes in a dispersed state after the first native born generation, beginning with the reduced use of the mother tongue and limited attraction to the infrastructural institutions such as the church and cultural groups. Armenians seem to have defied this logic with the fourth and fifth generations born on these shores. Certainly our clannish nature has been a contributor as Armenians almost obsessively look for each other wherever they settle. Another factor has been the continuous pattern of immigration that replenishes the depleted ranks due to assimilation. The migration of Armenians from Egypt in the late 50s and 60s and Lebanon and Syria in the late 60s and 70s provided the American Armenian community with a boost in active participants who filled many needs in the linguistic, cultural and political domains. This has “hidden” some of the obvious impact of second, third and fourth generations born in America. The last 20 years have seen immigrants from Baku and Armenia bring “reinforcements” to these shores. A third factor has certainly been the presence of a centralized institution such as the church that has provided access and diverse programming. These are some of the “Armenian” factors in our American-based life that have provided sustenance to our communities and identity. As a “hyphenated” community, we are also subject to the societal risks in our places of residence.
Regardless of the demographic makeup of the community in America (particularly in the eastern regions), our people live their lives in an American and Armenian reality. Unlike the west coast (especially Los Angeles), a small percentage of Armenian children in the eastern region attend Armenian day schools. The vast majority of families send their children to the public schools, or perhaps American private schools, and live in communities sparsely populated by Armenians. The Armenian life is a Friday-Sunday existence. This is when AYF meetings, ACYOA meetings, church services and Armenian family life take place. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally most of the pertinent activity is in the weekend window. It has been this way for years and, if anything, has become more challenging.
I grew up in a small town with no Armenians and was an American kid during the week. On Friday, we morphed into Armenians as activities flourished and family gatherings were plentiful. There were fewer time conflicts, but our parents made our faith and heritage a priority. On Monday, the reverse would take place. Our non-Armenian friends knew they we were rarely available on weekends as it was “Armenian time.” It worked well primarily because life was more simple back then, but the decision to participate still resided in the family. The alternatives were limited. Since that time, we have become more dispersed. Affluence and fear have driven Armenians further away from their traditional cultural centers. We may have lived in a town with no Armenians, but we were five to ten minutes from the church. Today, many travel 30 to 60 minutes, or they don’t make the trip at all. This requires our community to adopt new approaches to outreach, or we will accelerate assimilation. This has been the subject of past columns and will continue to be a central theme.
Let’s take a closer look at how lifestyles have changed for the typical American Armenian family. Two generations ago, most couples married in their early 20s, and children came shortly thereafter. Today, it is clear that with undergraduate education assumed and advanced degrees common, “settling in life” happens much later, typically in their 30s. With their personal lives maturing at a different rate, participating in Armenian community life takes on a different curve also. Most of the younger people that I have met are bright, educated and innovative but not typically “joiners” of organizations. There are a few core reasons. One frequently mentioned and again the subject of continuing dialogue is their identity with these legacy organizations. The organizations that are making the generational transfer have either managed to “reinvent” themselves for this generation without compromising their mission or establish entirely new groups that fit the social/flexible lifestyle of this generation. The AGBU YP and Armenian network groups are examples that have appeal. Legacy groups like the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) have also had success with smart recruiting. Others such as Homenetmen connect with immigrant families who identify with their previous locations.
Another contributor which is more problematic is the impact on the American family in today’s society. Face to face communication has been replaced by technology because it serves our craving for more efficiency. There was a time not too long ago when families sat at a table together for dinner. They didn’t simply satisfy their hunger, but also shared what was going on in their lives. Some call it bonding. It was an integral part of the family culture. This rarely happens today, because schedules are so overloaded that common time is a rarity. In fact, we have designed shared meals today out of our kitchens with the introduction of the “island” and “peninsula” that operate more like a diner counter with your parents as the short order cook. Many young people today use their “phones” primarily for non-verbal communication such as texting, social media and surfing the internet. Refrigerator doors have become more than a climate barrier to your food. They are a bulletin board of your life. “Free time” is considered wasteful, and we wonder why anxiety and stress are problematic.
Is there any time left for God and our heritage?
There is no doubt that parenting is more challenging and far more complicated. Parents are more involved in the educational system. Peer pressure is significant and constant. Time is in short supply, and exhaustion is common. Despite our sociological changes, the basic role of parents to prepare their children for the future remains intact. We must acknowledge that we cannot decouple these behavioral lifestyle choices from the impact on participation in the Armenian community. With the complexity of our lives, our choices are forced into short term horizons. Is there any time left for God and our heritage? By the time the weekend arrives, families work to get caught up. Between entering family life later and the incredible density of commitments, community participation takes an unintended backseat. What is the long term impact of this dilemma? The most damaging aspect of this challenge is that we are not addressing it as a community. A serious discussion about the choices we make and collective support would make us all stronger and more effective. There is no avoiding it. If we choose to ignore the issues, we will continue to be a communal victim. Immigration is also not a cure. The children of immigrants from Armenia or the Middle East are generationally comparable to my father’s generation—the first born in this country from the survivors. As the generations continued, the impact of the American lifestyle has taken effect. The same will happen with successive generations of more recent arrivals. They simply are operating in a different window. The exceptions are those who are strong enough to do it all or have made conscious decisions to prioritize their faith and heritage. This is the core cause of why we see less students in our Sunday Schools and wide variations in attendance week to week. Choices!
Is it possible that our faith and heritage are simply not important to a growing segment of our community in the diaspora? If that is true, then we are failing. Leadership is required, but this week we are talking about the other side of the equation: the choices we make as parents. How can we help our friends, relatives and siblings make the right choices? We shouldn’t patronize those we care about; instead, we should have difficult discussions that will make their lives happier. That is respect and love.
One question I ask myself constantly is how do we convince people in their prime parenting years to be concerned about their legacy and impact? When you are older or become grandparents, we all think about the next generation and what we are leaving behind. This applies to family life but also to community life. Who thinks about their legacy when they are 40? Not many people I suspect, but that is when you have the greatest impact on your most significant gift to the future—your children. We all make mistakes parenting. It is the classic “earn while you learn” job. When my children were of youth sports age, I was active as a coach. One year, the leagues (basketball and baseball) faced a shortage of facilities and an increase of players. The leagues proposed Sunday morning games. I was deeply committed to the sports, but they had crossed a red line with me. I informed them that my son and I would not participate in any games Sunday morning. It was not one of my most popular comments. After vigorous debate and a few awkward moments, they found a solution by scheduling later in the day to avoid the Sunday morning. The league committed to no games before 2 pm. Our son developing a relationship with God and the Armenian church was of paramount importance. There were a few things I didn’t handle well, but that’s one that I am convinced made a difference in the life of our now married father of two next generation American Armenians. We always need to keep what is important in front of us. But how do we know what is important? This is where friendships and communal interaction can be beneficial. We can’t go through this alone. The overload feeling we fall into is not success. Make the choices with balance based on what is in the long term interests of your child’s development and your family’s happiness.