Us and Them

By Taleen Mardirossian

The only Armenia I knew growing up was the one I had envisioned in my mind. It was a place I had never visited, neither had my parents, nor my grandparents, yet the language, history, and culture of this unfamiliar place had somehow always been the center of my universe. And the simple fact that my family loved, cherished, and honored a country they had never known fascinated me. But this fascination transformed into fear during my very first flight to Yerevan. I felt sick to my stomach. What if I hate everything about this place?  I had way too much to lose and I wasn’t ready to give any of it up.

Luckily, this fear was short-lived. I fell in love with the open arms of strangers that could warm hearts with their embrace.  I fell in love with the voices of children, yelling at each other in Armenian. I fell in love with the sight of old men playing backgammon on the sidewalks, chewing their sunflower seeds. I fell in love with the wrinkled hands of women who cooked the tastiest meals from scratch. I fell in love with ancient books that had been covered in centuries worth of dust. I fell in love with the generosity and kindness exhibited by villagers who had nothing but gave everything to anyone who knocked on their door. I fell in love with the eyes of the elderly that told a different story with every blink.  I fell in love with the hearts, smiles, tears, and souls of my people. I fell in love with the churches, the mountains, the trees, and the lakes. I fell in love with a place that I had only known in my heart.

Although I felt at home, I quickly realized that I was an outsider to many. The simple fact that I didn’t speak the same dialect of Armenian automatically made me different in a “you’re obviously not one of us” kind of way. When asked about my thoughts on Armenia, I’d say something like I love it here, which turned out to be an answer that made me the subject of disapproving eyes, coupled with mouths that spoke bitter words in sweet tones. Words to remind me that in some way or another, living outside of Armenia’s borders meant that I shared no resemblance to this ‘authentic’ group; that my reflection was and always would be vividly unalike; that I somehow wasn’t entitled to that feeling of being home in Armenia. And so, I remained on the receiving end of strategically concealed comments during every subsequent visit. But it wasn’t until my most recent visit that a comment along these lines left me utterly shocked.

I landed in Yerevan, a hair away from feeling at home once again, and impatiently waited in line to get my passport stamped. As my turn approached, I walked towards the man at the counter, a smile blatantly visible on my face, and handed him my passport. His face was anything but pleasant as he browsed through it and failed terribly at his attempt to speak broken English while handing me a piece of paper.

“Write.”

He held up a form.

“Sign.”

Pointed to where I’m supposed to sign.

“Bring to me.”

He then motioned with his hand for me to move over to the next counter and bring back the form upon completion.

My smile immediately disappeared. It was obvious that he did not speak any English so I was having a hard time understanding why he wasn’t talking to me in Armenian. But then it clicked. He had seen my American passport and automatically assumed that I did not know a word of Armenian. I snatched the form from his hand, annoyed and not in the mood to argue after a 12-hour flight. I dragged my luggage, and myself, to the next nearest stand. Minutes later, I strutted back and dropped the form on his counter, every line filled out in Armenian. He stared at the form, then at me, then back at the form, then back at me, as if I had magically pulled a rabbit out of my pocket. I glared back with my don’t you feel stupid face, as he was having trouble finding words.

“How do you know how to write Armenian?” he finally asked.

“Because I’m Armenian.”

“No.”

He grabbed my passport and waved it in the air, as if I had never seen it before.

“You’re not Armenian. You’re an American.”

And you’re an asshole I wanted to say, but instead, I grabbed my passport and walked away.

He wasn’t completely wrong but he definitely wasn’t right. In the States, my un-American name comes with an automatic presumption that it belongs to a foreigner. So, regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in California, attended public schools my entire life, and speak English without the slightest accent attached to my tongue, I am undoubtedly identified as Armenian. And here I was, in Armenia, being told, by an Armenian, that I was not Armenian, merely because my passport stated otherwise.  Great, I thought to myself, I’m an Armenian in America and an American in Armenia.

Here’s what Mr. Rude will never understand; I can’t be one without the other. Living in America has certainly shaped the person I am today, but so has my family’s past. My roots cannot be unheeded and deemed void simply because I was born somewhere that is not Armenia. Referring to the Armenian diaspora as a population that is not Armenian is comical. These are the very people who preserved a culture and identity they were never directly exposed to. These people built Armenian churches in Muslim countries, stood trials in foreign courts, and created little Armenia’s all across the world out of passion for the land they come from and respect for the people who occupy it. While our ancestors were driven out of their homes, given no choice but to fight for their lives and flee elsewhere, we had to continue to fight discrimination and oppression long after they stepped foot into their safe havens.

There exists a flaw in the way Armenians perceive one another. Citizens in Armenia can’t begin to imagine the struggles faced by the diaspora to keep our identity overseas, and Armenians in the diaspora don’t know the challenges faced by those living in the Motherland, so let’s not pretend to understand. Whether a diasporan or a citizen, a Garabed or a Gary, native speaker or not, one is not inferior or superior to the other.

The soil beneath our feet may be different, but our roots are grounded in the same land. Our ancestors were targets of the same crime. Growing up, our ears heard the same melodies, our eyes read the same stories, our mouths spoke the same words, our hands moved to the same songs. Armenia has been a part of us, as much as it’s been a part of you. We must put our differences aside, move past “us” and “them”, and realize that the world sees us all as one people, Armenians. I think it’s about time we do the same.

Say something worthwhile.

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