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.