“Where is it better: here or there?” is a question I’ve been asked every summer that I’ve visited Armenia, usually over a small cup of traditional coffee.
Born in Yerevan, I moved to New York City at the age of two along with my parents and my baby sister. While I was growing up, my parents stressed the importance of learning and using our native Armenian tongue in the home with extensive weekly grammar and literature classes from my father and no-English-allowed conversations with my mother. Not surprisingly, the last thing I wanted after a week of schoolwork was to sit through dictations on a Saturday. On Sunday, we went to church.
I have only now developed an immense gratitude for the efforts my parents exerted to raise us in a home where a bowl of harissa was a regular meal and bedtime read-alouds consisted of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s short stories. Upon their arrival to the U.S., my parents found solace in the community of Armenians who had also moved from Yerevan in hopes of constructing a new future for their families. They played nardi (backgammon) together, celebrated Vardavar in the humid New York heat, and taught one another the nooks and crannies of building a life in this strange, novel place they would one day feel comfortable calling home.
And yet, my childhood was not hermetically sealed off from American values and belief systems. Nor was that the ultimate goal of my parents. Despite having attended a few years of elementary school in Armenia and interned for research institutions over the summers, the cloud of confusion and guilt around my multi-faceted identity has never ceased to dissipate. When visiting Yerevan, I’m often oblivious to the punch-lines of jokes and unfamiliar with the shortcuts available from one grandmother’s bak (courtyard) to another’s. When I reveal my ethnic background in New York, on a good day, I am recited a list of random famous Armenians. On a bad day, I sit through a dinner where my friend’s father incessantly asks me what country Armenia belongs to.
The looming discomfort of never feeling that I could fluidly maneuver through either culture has always tugged at this question: Does learning your native language, maintaining cultural traditions and attending church make up for the sense of not fitting in when visiting the homeland?
Where Do I Belong?
The concept of unbelonging is not unique to my own experience; it often surfaces in literature discussing diasporan communities across the globe, including the Australian Aborigines, Jews, Greeks, Eritreans, to name only a few. As Sheila Collingwood-Whittick suggests “Where is my place” and “Where do I belong?” are questions that the descendants of diasporan communities have to regularly consider in order to find a sense of direction in their contemporary experience.”
If children of the diaspora feel that they are neither fully at home in the country they grew up in nor when they visit their homeland, how can they ever feel fully understood and connected to themselves and their communities? According to social identity theory, one’s identity consists of “a person’s knowledge that he or she belongs to a social category or group,” the latter being a “set of individuals who hold a common social identification or view themselves as members of the same social category.” Children growing up in the diaspora may often alternate between multiple identities and adjust to the culture of the environment they are in at a given point in time. Ani Shahinyan, an Armenian who grew up in New York City, explains that she “[goes] back to Armenia feeling just as much belonging – but a different type of belonging. Somewhere in this process, [she] realized [she] could be American without being less Armenian.”
It is inevitable that Armenians in various diasporan communities will adopt cultural practices and the language of the environment they are in. In fact, exposure to various languages and frameworks of thinking can yield a generation of children that benefit from multilingualism and socio-cultural flexibility. We approach situations with a multicultural lens and analyze cultural and societal paradigms through both the perspective of an insider and an outsider. The key to maneuvering through these multiple identities is to not approach them as mutually exclusive and incompatible forces but instead as overlapping and continuously evolving ones. “I feel like I grew up being told what being Armenian means, not realizing that I was entitled to define this as an Armenian,” Shahinyan confesses. “That’s what’s made all the difference in letting me now belong to two places.”
Finding My Own Story
While my parents dealt with the immediate psychological dissonance that accompanies moving to a foreign country with no connections and no sense of familiarity, I had no previous life to compare my experience to. In fact, once I began attending school, New York became my home. My friends were here, my favorite teachers waited for me in welcoming classrooms and I knew which grocery store aisle had ice cream (the only item on my grocery list at the age of 7). As a child, visiting Armenia consisted of endless kisses from relatives I struggled to remember the names of, my father pointing to advertisement billboards and testing to see if I could read them, and looking at black-and-white photographs of my parents in their school uniforms. These trips enabled my parents to remember their past lives and for me to visualize the stories I had heard growing up.
For the two of them, visiting Armenia after their move to New York City was painful in its own way; they wanted to retell and retrace the lives they once had in order to not forget them. It was a way of reassuring themselves that they were still the same Armenians who had left years ago, despite all that had inevitably and irreversibly changed. They dusted off their childhood bookshelves and recommended texts to me that they had read under candlelight. They waited in line at Grand Candy for a ponchik and reminisced about how they used to run over there after the first day of school.
During these vacations, I felt that my long trips overseas were for visiting old monasteries, eating delicious grilled meat and spending time at Poplavok with my grandparents. I remember crying at Zvartnots airport every year when it was time to say goodbye. I felt incredibly frustrated that people who cared for one another had to part ways for such extended periods of time. At the same time, I felt more connected to my daily life in America and struggled to see myself as more than just a visitor when in the “homeland.”
Armenia only started feeling like home when I began weaving my own associations with it as opposed to attempting to recreate and relive the life of my parents. By meeting young people my age, including some who had returned from the diaspora, and discussing what life was like for them now, trying out new cafes and even traveling there alone while I was studying abroad, I have reimagined what being Armenian means for me. Being able to establish my own relationship with my roots has also made me even more grateful for the fact that I speak our language and know our prayers, as they connect fluidly and authentically to the time I spend there now.
Pillars for Survival
In the Armenian Diaspora today, the pressure of assimilation threatens to weaken the foundation of a resilient Indo-European language that has not only survived Genocide and exile but has also established itself as the ancient language of four kingdoms and three republics. Vahe Oshagan comments that “since it has served as the major instrument of national survival through the centuries, language has become the object of a cult, has been sanctified by the Church, and has virtually symbolized the national identity.” Learning Armenian has allowed me to communicate with my parents and relatives, watch H1 news with them every evening, and even read fiction for pleasure.
Alongside language, diasporan communities with a strong sense of group identity also have a physical location, such as a church, to practice their religion and a community with whom they can exercise cultural rituals. While many first-generation Armenians may be able to retain elements of their native culture in their families, without these pillars, the diaspora is subject to an eventual absorption into the dominant culture. In New York City, the St. Vartan Cathedral, located in the middle of Manhattan, brings hundreds of Armenians together. While this space serves as a site to practice our religion, there are also cultural events on Christmas and Easter with Armenian food and performances by traditional dance groups. On April 24, we wave flags in Times Square and chant “We Remember and Demand.” Participating in these events allows me to catch up with other Armenians from various generations, feel connected to our community and establish a sense of agency in my contribution to the diaspora and the nourishment of the ties to my roots.
Aiming for the Liminal State
While I have created a life in America that holds true to my core Armenian identity, the connection I feel to my relatives in Yerevan and the grin on my face when a man shouts “Javeli spirt!” at sunrise wouldn’t be possible without spending time in my country. An emptiness still lingers after I board a plane back to New York. But when I return, I host a large Armenian barbecue gathering, where my father impresses my friends with his famous pork khorovats. I am reminded that, through lighting khoonk on the anniversary of my grandfathers’ passing, describing the beauty of visiting the Tatev monastery to my American friends, and transcribing recipes from my mother’s dog-eared cookbook to my newly-purchased one, I am able to find peace in a transitionary space I was often uncomfortable in before. Maintaining, creating and redefining my identity in the diaspora requires action. It involves verbs and a lot of doing.
So when I am asked where I feel better, I struggle to choose one place. On one hand, my friends, my education, and my work are now in New York. On the other hand, an immediate warmth radiates through my body when I land in Zvartnots and I feel that I am accepted despite my different upbringing. This question always stumps me. I flip over my now empty cup of coffee and respond “I can’t pick. I feel like each place is part of my story. And I think I’m ok with that.”