Gaining New Perspectives

Last week, I offered commentary on the value of relationships in our human journey. It is particularly important in bridging the gaps between the Armenian Diaspora and the homeland. Mary Mirzakhanyan, our dear friend from Armenia, has been indispensable in helping us navigate the local culture and serving as an invaluable source of knowledge and advice in building relationships that are the cornerstone of a sustainable culture. We were blessed to have Mary as our guest this past week after she visited her sister in California. Although she has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East, this was her first visit to the United States. It was an opportunity to return her gracious hosting during our trips to Armenia. 

Our friendship with Mary began 10 years ago when she became, purely by chance and our good fortune, our tour guide for a trip with some longtime AYF friends. She was very creative, resourceful and immediately captured our attention with her passion for sharing the story of Armenia. This was not simply a job for this young woman, but a mission. We also met Hasmig at the Genocide museum who, when asked why she was a tour guide, responded that she was honoring her grandfather and ancestors who were natives of Erzerum (Garin). We also will never forget the young woman at the Artsakh Museum in Stepanakert who spoke with such knowledge and patriotic zeal that we were emotionally moved. What I have learned from these humble servants is that they offer a perspective that is worthy of our ears and hearts. Interestingly, when they visit our home, we also gain new perspectives on parts of our local culture we may have taken for granted.

Mary spent almost five days with us. We were eager to show her the best that Boston has from an American and Armenian perspective. What I discovered and perhaps did not anticipate was the value of listening to others’ reactions to experiences that we may take for granted. Sometimes it takes someone with limited knowledge but an appetite for learning for us to truly appreciate the blessings we have. Since Mary has many Armenian American clients in her tour profession, she wanted to understand more about their home environment. She is also one who appreciates the diversity of cultures on this earth. We live near the battlegrounds of Concord and Lexington from the American Revolution. We wanted to give Mary a glimpse of the beginning of America. Although we have lived here for many years and have a love of history, I have not spent a great deal of time at these historic sites. It was clear that I was going to learn something after going through the artifacts at the museum and standing on the Old North Bridge site of the famous Concord battle”the shot heard around the world.” What I did not anticipate was the thought-provoking impact of Mary’s first exposure to this history. I found myself making analogies of some of the revolutionary battles to Sardarabad and comparing the oppression of the British to our brethren in Artsakh. Each simply wanted to exercise their right to self determination. I was also very proud to share this history with Mary as we reviewed the bravery of the men and women who volunteered for a vision of freedom. I felt a renewed appreciation for the incredible will of these colonists who prevailed despite their limited capabilities. The comparisons to our Armenian existence were numerous. I also thought about the America that emerged from the war in 1783 and the social challenges that it confronted over the next decades. In a land driven by democracy, only white male landowners could vote in that initial presidential election. We complain about the pace of maturation in Armenia, yet our own American history is a story of evolution after the revolution. It was a fascinating morning simply because of the genuine appreciation of our friend from the homeland and the perspective she brought with her. We stood together on the Old North Bridge as we had stood at Sardarabad and Abaran to appreciate the unique character that brings about such epic events. 

Mary Mirzakhanyan walking along the shores of Massachusetts

A few days later, we went to the ocean on the north shore of Massachusetts. This was a unique experience for Mary who has lived her entire life in a landlocked country where freshwater lakes are their water bodies. We all love the ocean, but it takes an experience of sharing it with someone who has never seen an ocean to bring about a minor epiphany of God’s creation. It was a beautiful day as we walked the vast and inviting shore line. We harvested some beautiful shells and explained the various configurations. The most interesting reaction came from explaining the tidal process. That morning, the low tide was changing rapidly as the waves mounted and the water line crept inward. We did our best to explain the lunar relationship with tides as we witnessed the rapid progression. In the Seaport area of Boston where the harbor walk gives pedestrians direct access to the harbor waters, we were able to show the receding depths on the seawall of about seven feet. We dined in the afternoon on the North Shore at a nearby restaurant that sits on the ocean with an elevated foundation. Mary was stunned by the tidal movement during our meal that consumed all of the visual beachfront. Again, we all engaged in a rich discussion and made comparisons to the environment in Armenia. For a small country, Armenia has a remarkably diverse geography. Lori reminds many of northern New England while Vayots Dzor looks like the southwest of the United States. When Armenians from the diaspora and the homeland participate in sharing and comparing, they build a deeper foundation. Friendships are extended beyond the casual and obvious. We had gone shopping in Armenia with Mary many times and now had the experience of doing the same in the US. We all gained something valuable from those few days together that will fuel new heights in our friendship.

We also spent time “touring” the Armenian presence in the area. Our group went through a few churches, the markets and educational centers. We were proud to share with Mary the life of the community and infrastructure in the region. One of our last visits was to the new NAASR Building in Belmont. This jewel of a building houses the renowned 35,000+ volume Mardigian Library, bookstore and public facilities. The Armenian inspired themes such as the alphabet wall and “Noravank” staircase were appropriate reflections of the cultural retention that unites the diaspora and the homeland into a global nation. It is important for the diaspora to be viewed as a community of depth relative to our language, culture, religion and history. It is much more than a source of pride. It is a conduit for building a common bond with our brethren in Armenia and Artsakh. Despite geography and local cultures, these experiences reflect what unites us. Breaking down the stereotypes on both sides of the ocean can only happen through personal experiences and relationship building. It becomes an investment in our values. The interaction is driven by respect, and the bonding of our fractured nation is the beneficiary. My grandfather used to say that there is a reason why God gave us twice as many ears as mouths. If we can muster enough humility to listen to each other, there is great power in the result. Are we engaging in a communal relationship only to hear ourselves or are we relishing the opportunity to hear another perspective and perhaps gain a new level of enlightenment?

Mary will return to Armenia this week, leaving with us a great giftthe opportunity to see our own lives through a different lens and gain new personal insight. We often cloud our thinking with the disappointments and challenges that we face as a nation. They are critical but can be exhausting. We should take a moment to appreciate the Marys in our lives who expand our sphere of thinking simply by their sincere nature. With these experiences, truly the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole. The fragmentation of our nation is nothing new. Prior to the work of Mashdots and the Holy Translators, Armenia was bound geographically with connected dialects but could not create native literature, and educated individuals read through the languages of others. The miracle of the written alphabet created a sense of commonality in a people politically divided. Today that fragmentation manifests itself geographically through our dispersion into a variety of host countries. Subcultures have been naturally created that are perceived barriers. In truth, they are more a thin veneer that can be removed through relationship building. It can overcome any wall created by artificial events. When Armenia became independent, many from the diaspora in the United States were cautious in their engagement based on perceptions such as language dialects, food differences, political environment and values. What we have learned when regular folks from the diaspora connect with regular folks from the homeland is that the depth and warmth of the relationships are inherent and reflect a core set of cultural norms and values that are stronger than any of our differences. We need to exploit this opportunity and contribute to the connection of the global nation. At the same time, the experience will make us better humans and offer important self-reflection. Seek and ye shall find.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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