By Missak Artinian
I have come to learn that being Armenian in a small suburb of Virginia (where I was born and raised) and being Armenian in Glendale, California (where I recently moved) is a vastly different experience. Here’s what I mean. Back home, when someone asked me about my ancestry and I said Armenian, I was automatically associated with mystery and intrigue. Here in Glendale, when someone asks me about my ancestry and I say Armenian, I am automatically associated with car insurance fraud.
Being Armenian in a small town had some advantages because it gave me the opportunity to set a precedent. How a stranger would perceive Armenians as a whole rested on the content of my character, for better or for worse. As the only Armenian within at least a 30-mile radius, I had a responsibility to make good first impressions with strangers because, unfortunately, in a world where people so easily make broad generalizations of any given race, ethnicity, or religion based on the actions of a few individuals, it’s especially important for those of us who belong in an ethnic minority to project a positive image.
For some residents of Glendale, however, the damage may already be done.
Take Diana, for example, an attractive Israeli girl who sells lotion at one of those kiosks in Glendale Galleria. A few weeks ago, she approached me as I was walking back to work, and asked if I had a girlfriend. Misinterpreting her icebreaker sales tactic for romantic interest (she must see something she likes, I reasoned), I was drawn into her net as an unwary sailor is lured unto rocks by a siren’s song.
She proceeded to sensually caress my wrist and compliment my complexion, which, according to her, would look even more radiant if only I were to purchase a four hundred dollar beauty package. Upon hearing this price, the expression on my face probably suggested, How reasonable! But in my mind, I was really thinking, where can I get me some of your crack?
Before I could come up with an excuse to escape her web, she gripped my shoulders, leaned forward, peered deeply into my eyes, and whispered, “But for you, I will sell for three hundred.” Moments like these don’t happen often, but when they do, I can’t help but think, Missak, you still got it.
Flattered as I was by Diana’s generous discount, I had to pass, as I was unable to convince myself that magic exfoliating potions and serums were a better value proposition than, say, a ton of cheese from Trader Joe’s. So predictably, the chemistry between us fizzled, but to repay her for boosting my self-esteem, I offered to buy the cheapest product she had (a bar of mud soap, twenty dollars). When I handed her my credit card, she noticed my last name, and said, “Oh.”
“What?” I said.
“You are Armenian.”
“That’s very perceptive.”
“Your people, you need to open your mind,” she exclaimed, as she tapped my forehead with her index finger. “Open.”
“Open my mind, or open my wallet?” I snapped back, grinning.
She laughed, and we made a connection then and there that was pure and genuine, though admittedly, I tend to embellish my memories as delusional people do, so maybe not.
What struck me the most about the transaction was the look on her face when she saw the –ian at the end of my last name. In her defense, I am ethnically ambiguous, which can be advantageous during job interviews and an inconvenience during TSA screenings. Nonetheless, it was that look on Diana’s face that left a lasting impression, a look that suggested; if only you were wearing a gold chain, I wouldn’t have wasted my time. Not that I blame the poor girl. Her job is to sell snake oil in a mall heavily patronized by Armenians – a group of people, mind you, who have mastered the art of selling snake oil!
A few weeks later, I met a young professional by the name of Thomas at Broadway Bar in Downtown, Los Angeles. We spoke for a few minutes, and during our conversation, I mentioned that I had recently moved to Glendale from the D.C. metro area.
“Why Glendale?” he asked.
“Close to my new job, mainly.”
“Careful, man. Lots of douchebags there.”
“Really? What do you mean?” I asked, though I had an idea of where this conversation was heading. Keep in mind that I introduced myself as Mike (my nickname), so as far as he was concerned, he was talking to some white guy.
“Armenians. Armenians everywhere.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“They drive Benzes and Bimmers like they got money, right? But actually, what they do is they pretend their kids are retarded so they get extra money out the government.”
“No way. That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, man. They’re just milking the system.”
By the end of Thomas’ tirade, I was sad. I was sad because I knew there was truth in what he was saying, that in this world, there are bad Armenians who do bad things. But more than sadness, I felt disappointment. Mainly in Thomas, whose apparent intelligence could not save him from falling prey to the trappings of prejudice. Before saying farewell, I offered him another round on me, and though he may never realize it, he unwittingly clinked glasses with a douchebag from Glendale.
On the drive back home (after sobering up, to be clear), I wondered why I didn’t school Thomas? Surely any self-respecting Armenian would’ve opted for a more confrontational approach, perhaps with a few obscenities mixed in for good measure. But that I said nothing and did nothing was concerning to me. Why did I conceal my identity? Why did I fail to defend my people? And most perplexingly, why did I buy him a drink?
“Because you’re a self-hating Armenian,” my shoulder devil whispered into my ear.
“That’s not true,” my shoulder angel jumped in, defending me. “Missak may hate himself, but not because he’s Armenian.”
My shoulder angel had a point. I genuinely do believe that being Armenian has its positives. Let me count the ways:
But growing up Armenian in a town where I felt like the only Missak in the world sucked. Because there’s no way you can ever be cool in school when your name alludes to male genitalia. That just doesn’t happen, not in a world teeming with Brians, Davids, and Matts. I sometimes wonder where some of my classmates are today, the creative geniuses who came up with increasingly clever ways to make fun of me by calling me names like Meat-sack and No-sack. I can imagine them working at some shady ad agency, coining product names like:
Like many first-generation Americans, I struggled with the same issues that are common in immigrant stories. Toula’s struggle to fit in with her American classmates in My Big Fat Greek Wedding comes to mind; or Woody Allen’s existential crisis when he attempts to give Catholicism a try in Hannah and her Sisters, shaming his proud Jewish parents. Even stories about Chinese moms and their assimilated daughters (see everything ever written by Amy Tan) were oddly relatable, even though I have no ovaries and I’m about as Asian as Frank Underwood is kind.
Like many of these characters, I spent most of my formative years being pulled in two directions, with my Armenian identity on one side and my American identity on the other. No matter how hard I tried to find the right balance between appeasing the expectations of my traditional Armenian family and assimilating to the culture of the country in which I was born, I always felt like I was stuck between two worlds.
And now that I live in Glendale, do I feel less like an outsider? Nope. And you know what? That’s okay. To be an outsider is to experience the world as a critic and an admirer. Glendale has its issues (I’m looking at you, you aggressive drivers), but it also has a lot of beauty. And whether people like Thomas agree with me or not, a lot of that beauty is due to the city’s decidedly Armenian identity.
The tri-colored Armenian flag is as ubiquitous here as rain is in Seattle. The Armenian alphabet is displayed practically on every deli, grocery store, and small business. The music is audible on the street, inside my car, from my balcony. The language is spoken in the unlikeliest of places, like the Wholefoods where a group of older Armenian women congregate outside during lunchtime and speak of politics in boisterous shrills. Hell, the view outside my office window features a large building with letters that read USArmenia, which serves as a daily reminder that I’m far from the small town whose identity was as uncertain as mine.
It is this celebration of identity, I think, that unites the Armenians of Glendale, and indeed, Armenians all around the world. They are a people who will show their friends the tiny country of Armenia on a map, will educate random strangers that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, will speak out in class when their history books gloss over or skip the Armenian Genocide, and will protest Turkey’s ongoing denial of the systematic attempt to eradicate the Armenian culture, religion, and people from the face of the Earth.
Armenians are a people whose voices cannot be silenced, because for a small ethnic group that so narrowly escaped complete annihilation, to be silent is to dishonor the survivors, their enduring spirits, without whom, these very words would cease to exist.