Consistently Inconsistent

By Taleen Mardirossian

I was born in the United States but the first words I ever spoke were not English. Ironically, while I was fluent in Armenian, the language of a country over 7,000 miles away, I barely spoke the native tongue of the very country I was living in. Understandably, you may be thinking that perhaps this is because my parents didn’t speak any English. Wrong. Both of my parents spoke English fluently, but not a word of it was spoken at home. By the age of three, I had perfected English thanks to the notorious purple dinosaur and the mini-size humans I interacted with at mommy-and-me classes. Subconsciously, I had trained my toddler self to compartmentalize when, where, and who to speak which language to. This is evident in my embarrassing home videos which depict a chatterbox wearing hot red high heels and clip on earrings, picking up a toy telephone, placing it upside-down next to my ear, demanding, “Pizza man, bring me one pepperoni pizza. Five dollars? No problem.” I knew that in order to place a pretend order of pizza, I would have to do it in English because chances are, the “pizza man” wouldn’t understand Armenian. On the other hand, in order to convince my grandmother to walk me to the park, I knew I would have to ask in Armenian with a little bit of jeelveh.

My parents knew that being Armenian would not come naturally in the United States, so they created their own version of Armenia in our home. Our Armenia was composed of large family gatherings, loud Armenian conversations, all you can eat sarma, Nersik Ispirian’s voice, and men with perfect moustaches. And just in case anyone walked into our home and was still unsure about our nationality, we had an Armenian flag on top of the TV. It’s safe to say that my house may have very well had a Yerevan address but one step outside and everything changed, from language to expectations to culture.

It wasn’t until I started elementary school that I realized I was different. My name wasn’t Ashley or Katie and no other student in my class had an ian attached to their last name. In fact, when teachers would take roll, I was always the girl that raised her hand and yelled “here” before anyone even had the chance to roll my last name off their tongue, crucified. My classmates didn’t speak a foreign language and the fact that I did automatically prompted them to assume that I was born somewhere far away. But they were wrong, and I always felt as though I owed an explanation to everyone. An explanation as to why they had never heard of my name before, why I missed school every April 24, why my mom packed a lebni sandwich for lunch instead of Lunchables, why I went to Armenian school on Friday afternoons, and the whys were never-ending.  What I didn’t realize then was that this was only the beginning.

During my freshman year in high school, I started recognizing the extent of this diversion. I remember being at the school gym one day, reading an Armenian book of poetry and munching on Cheetos, while stretching before dance practice.  The cleanest version of Missy Elliott’s “Work it” came on and that was my cue. I put my book in my bag, took my spot, and my body was moving to the rhythm in counts of eight. My mind, however, was analyzing and repeating a line from one of Paruyr Sevak’s poems I had just read, “Պարզապես մահն է մեզ սիրահարվել.”  What a beautiful way to word the tragic past of our people, I thought to myself. For the next two hours, until practice was finally over, my mind and body were out of sync, as if belonging to two separate people. I slipped on my already drenched Uggs, ran in the rain to the front of the school, and jumped into my mom’s car as she stepped on the gas in an attempt to get me to ballet class on time. Missy Elliott was replaced with Paul Baghdadlian and Cheetos were traded with a Tupperware of monteh. I made it to class with a minute to spare, put my hair in a messy bun, slipped on my ballet shoes, and became lost in the sound of classical music. My toes were aching from repetitive pas de chats and my head was spinning from spotting the red mark on the wall during pirouettes, as I made a conscious effort to control my body, making sure my posture was impeccable in my every move. When my mom and I finally arrived home that night, we walked into a barahantes in our living room and joined my dad in yarxushta, a very unladylike dance that requires giving up all control of the body, free movement of the shoulders, and assertive stomping of the feet to the ground. In a matter of minutes, my life went from feminine, graceful movements of ballet to a masculine driven fighting dance.

This polarity was consistent in almost every aspect of my life and it required balance, something that cannot be taught but rather, acquired over time. Luckily for my parents, I was never the rebellious type. I wasn’t allowed to stay out late unless my brother or cousins were with me, which I preferred anyway. I wasn’t allowed to date, which was also fine because I was more interested in John Steinbeck than any boy at school. I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up, which was a great excuse to give to the dance team when I showed up for half-time performances with a makeupless face. These weren’t the customs of Americans, rather, the traditions of Armenians, which my parents incorporated in my upbringing, regardless of where we were living. Although they were not easy to absorb and abide by, so far away from the source of such traditions, in hindsight, they were worth every bit of effort.

Every parent is guilty of promising their child, “One day you’ll thank me for this,” when instilling a verdict that either conflicts with their child’s desires or simply invites more difficulty into the already difficult adolescent life. For me, that “one day” is today and everyday. As I write this, I can confidently say that I have two homes, am a native speaker of two languages, and an individual with the cultural understanding and experiences of two people; two completely separate people who otherwise live completely different lives at separate sides of the world. Of course, there was sacrifice, a lot of it; but if I could ever put a value on the gain, it’d be a currency that far surpasses any other.

Armenian-American

By Melissa Lake

People, after learning I’m Armenian, often ask me how I identify myself. In essence, they’re asking me which little white box I check off on forms underneath the ethnicity section. White? Asian? Other?

Born fair-haired and light-skinned, from a young age I identified by exactly what I appeared to be- white. As I grew older and I discovered the palest shade of makeup was still too dark for my ivory skin, my ethnic identity was pretty firmly founded. And along with my ethnicity came the privilege that being categorized as “white” contains- no snide remarks were ever made about the color of my skin, no latent prejudices; the system was more skewed to work in my favor. I never faced racism or discrimination because of the color of my skin. I was (as almost sickening as it is to say) blessed for being born white. But my mother wasn’t so lucky. Already crippled by a thick and barely distinguishable accent, the combination of that along with her darker skin and her exotic features immediately categorized her as a foreigner, and by direct association, an outcast. People treated her differently than they would treat me. Clerks and cashiers in stores grew immediately impatient with her, people would slander her with terrorist incriminations or various snide remarks. She was often the butt end of every joke about foreigners. People on a consistent basis would tell her to “go back to where she came from”, to “learn English”- it was a constant onslaught of people reminding her of how much she didn’t belong, of how different she was. And where I was advantaged because of my race, she was hindered by hers. People, especially people who are privileged enough to not have to personally face it, tend to be very ignorant of the subtle racism that occurs within our everyday lives. Even blindly, unknowingly, seemingly subconsciously, we commit indistinct acts, seemingly harmless, of racism and discrimination- choosing a line that’s a little longer at the checkout to avoid the cashier with the accent, making a snide joke about the waiter- even I, born to a mother who is forced to endure these offences on a daily basis, am guilty. And my mother cannot be the only victim in this and I the only perpetrator.

Armenians are a people who have been ostracized for generations and while at times our voices against our oppressors speak loud and true, other times they are muffled pleas fading into background noise. Sometimes the fight has to be a small one, a single battle in a larger war. We are not voiceless victims and we must also be accepting and understanding of those who share the same fate and circumstance as our ancestors and that we still endure today. Being Armenian isn’t just being Armenian, it’s being human. It’s being strong and compassionate and empathetic. And for that reason we have to recognize that thousands of Armenians and other peoples face injustice and discrimination across the country for being considered foreign in a land they have called home for years if not generations. The struggle with being Armenian may start with the Genocide but it doesn’t end there, not with thousands being considered second class citizens for the way they dress or speak or look. The Genocide will never be acknowledged unless something is said, unless a voice is carried to an ear that will hear it and act upon it. And as much as it is an obligation for us all to speak for those who can no longer speak, it is also a responsibility for us to speak for those who speak and who will not be heard, for what good is a voice if no one will listen?

Resilience

By Nairi W.

Memories of a remarkable city with a tumultuous past, the Mikaelyans, in a candid interview with their daughter, intertwine personal and historical narratives as they discuss life in Gyumri, Armenia.

The Forgotten Genocide

By Melissa Lake

I used to be Armenian
until they took that from me too
like they took my grandparents lives
and then had the audacity to say
they were casualties of war.
And still my people fight
against an impossible, intangible foe
Denial.
And all we want is to be heard
to be understood
for someone to say
we were wrong
but instead forced ignorance is their only currency
and every blow is a little deeper
and every lie is killing twice.

Hereditary Scars

By Nicole Callella (Guest Contributor)

While many wonder why I am so interested in the Armenian Genocide, I find myself wondering the contrary; how people cannot be interested in the Armenian Genocide.  Growing up in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood, anything or anyone who was “different” immediately stood out.  In my first grade class, I met an Armenian girl who I never realized would be my best friend and continue to be in my life for the next 18 years.  She introduced me to a culture that I knew nothing about and it didn’t take long for me to learn “inch bes es”, have my first taste of lahmajun (Armenian pizza), spend a Friday afternoon at Armenian school, and attend huge family events.  I instantly fell in love with the culture, but what intrigued me the most was the knowledge I gained about the Armenian Genocide, or as I quickly realized from the view of others, “What genocide?”

Throughout my education, not once did I learn, in any history class, about the Armenian Genocide.  Not once did any teacher incorporate this part of history in a lesson, let alone merely mention it.  After graduating high school and continuing my education, I was required to take a year of history classes.  Although these classes discussed the Ottoman Empire all the way through our current war situation, perhaps only a brief mention in one lecture was made about the Armenian Genocide.

The first genocide of the 20th century, a planned extermination of an entire race, resulting in the death of 1.5 million people, was worthy of only a few minutes in an entire year of history classes.

Initially, the first thought through my mind was that this was supposed to be ‘higher education’.  In order to further educate myself, my professor, and my peers, I immediately decided to conduct research and write about the sufferings of the Armenians during the genocide and the impact of Turkey’s continued failure to recognize it.

Currently, I am a doctoral student studying Clinical Psychology and as a future psychologist, my primary goal is to help guide individuals to make positive changes in their lives (whatever this may mean to them).  It’s easy to assume that the only victims of the Armenian Genocide were those who suffered through it firsthand and that the new generation has no real connection to a crime that occurred almost a century ago. This assumption, however, is misleading.

The psychological implications Armenians have dealt with and continue to deal with are ongoing: emotional torment, loss of culture, search for identity, denial, and continued oppression. Research shows that the severe impact of the genocide has a transferrable effect, which is passed from generation to generation.  Psychologist and author, Jack Danielian, explains this phenomena in his article titled A Century of Silence: Terror and the Armenian Genocide. “Genocidal trauma (and trauma in general) is contagious and the contagion is likely to be insidious.  All who come in contact with it can come away marked, including victim, victim families and progeny, observers, advocates, researchers, and yes, perpetrators.”  It is when you empathize and explore with Armenians their identity that you begin to understand the effects and lasting impact of a century worth of denial of such a sickening historical event.  Multiple generations of Armenians still care about the genocide because they have inherited the scars that were inflicted on their ancestors, which are still vividly present on themselves today.

How can we not realize that by denying the genocide, we are perpetuating oppression when Armenians have already suffered enough?  I am not Armenian but I strive to spread awareness about the Armenian Genocide and advocate for the Armenian community for the justice they deserve.  I speak not as a psychologist, or friend of Armenians, but as a human being when I say that the Armenian Genocide needs to be recognized and accepted as just that; genocide.  The Turkish Government can never repair the damage that has been done, but they can offer the Armenian people a chance to heal by taking the first step and accepting the Armenian Genocide.

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Nicole Callella is a doctoral student studying Clinical Psychology, with an emphasis in Family, Child, and Couples.

Remember Not To Forget

By Melissa Lake

When I was young (before the Kardashians had reached any degree of notoriety) and people used to ask me what ethnicity I was, the typical response, after I said “Armenian”, was a bewildered expression and then a nodding of the head- on rare occasions some would mumble a polite “that’s nice”. Anybody who didn’t know what an Armenian was didn’t care to learn and those that did know knew very little: a small country in Eastern Europe, poor, irrelevant. Nobody knew about my people and nobody cared to know. The last time any powerful world leader had made any allusion to Armenians with any significant relevance or result was when Adolf Hitler asked, with a degree of almost pretentious mockery, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”; his words spoken in an effort to assuage the fears of those around him that the massacre of innocents he intended upon enacting would face no backlash. It is when a mass-murderer uses the degree of apathy the world has applied toward the genocide of your people as justification and insurance for his own carnage that you start to truly wonder- who really remembers the Armenians?

The answer to that question is a simple one. Who better to remember the Armenians than the Armenians themselves? My mother had never stepped foot on Armenian soil, neither had her mother before her or her mother before that. Born and raised on the outskirts of eastern Istanbul, my mother grew up surrounded by the very culture that had seen to the decimation of her own. In a time where assimilation would have been both easier and understandable by all means, her family remained proudly Armenian. While the language of their mother country was lost overtime through generations, their beliefs, practices, and ancestral culture remained the same. Christians in an Islamic world, my mother’s family were the devout descendants of a country that was proud to call itself the first Christian nation. But their beliefs, as too often we see throughout history, came at a cost. Forced into abject poverty, scorned and made pariahs by the society they had found themselves trapped within, my mother and her family never once faltered in their faith or heritage. When my mother turned 20, she boarded a plane to leave her country for what would be an excess of 20 odd years. My mother had all the reason in the world to abandon her culture. She was in a new country, thousands of miles away from a pseudo-motherland she was never even physically capable of calling home. In America it was irrelevant, Turkish, Armenian- foreign is all the same race in the end. But like her forefathers, she retained her roots, planted in a soil she had never had the privilege of knowing.

I am the oldest of four daughters and I can promise you that not a single one of us is ignorant of the genocide of our ancestors. I spent my youth writing essays, doing projects, attending museums, lecturing friends- I was never not acutely aware of the ignorance the world possessed in regard to Armenians and I was also never not fiercely determined to eradicate it. When I researched the history of the genocide when I was young, a quote that affected me so strongly that I still recall it was, “Forgetting is killing twice.” I think that’s the responsibility of every Armenian, young and old: to remember where we came from; to be the voice for those who can no longer speak.