By Taleen Mardirossian
I see the new generation of Armenian parents repeatedly shying away from Armenian traditions, culture, and even, language. And the reasoning behind this somewhat intentional abandonment of identity seems to be one and the same, to make it easier for their children to integrate into society. Here’s my take on this trend; you’re not doing your kid any favors.
This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not a parent and by no means is this meant to be a parenting guide on how to raise your children. These are just the thoughts and experiences of a twenty-six year old, raised to be Armenian in a city where most people would ask, what’s an Armenian?
I grew up in the South Bay, a predominantly white neighborhood where Armenians are a rare find. I vividly remember my mom calling me one day, hurriedly telling me to tidy up the living room. To Armenian moms, tidy up actually means dust the tables, vacuum the floors, Windex the mirrors, and set up an impressive arrangement of nuts, cookies, and dried fruits.
“Why mom? The house is already clean.”
“Because I found people. I’ll be home in ten.”
This either meant that the human race had become extinct since the last time I checked or that my mom meant that she had found our kind of people, which turned out to be the case. Where I grew up, if you heard Armenian-speaking voices in the next aisle while shopping, you’d bring them home for coffee. So, it goes without saying that I was raised in a town where the norm wasn’t being Armenian, it was having blonde hair and light eyes, and I definitely didn’t fit into this norm. At school, I was often the only bearer of an –ian last name. And I was always okay with this because instead of indirectly encouraging me to shy away from my identity, my parents taught me that having a hard to pronounce name, thick eyebrows, and a not-so-perfect nose made me different, and that being different meant that I was special. So I grew up loving my name, my eyebrows, and my nose but most of all, I loved being Armenian. I loved being different.
And this “being different” that young parents are now trying so hard to dodge away from, is the very thing that is rewarded in the society they are trying to fit into. Being different is what lands you the job that hundreds of other applicants interviewed for. Having a voice that’s different, a perspective that’s different, a presence that’s different, is the difference between being ordinary and extraordinary. The progression of our society is not thanks to people who invest their time and effort into being like everyone else. So, instead of trying to mold into the norms of society, allow your child the opportunity to embrace the fact that they are different.
And I don’t mean to say that being different is always easy, because it’s not. Being the only Taleen in a school of thousands of students wasn’t exactly a stress-free experience growing up, but I attribute a lot of my personality to the fact that I had an uncommon name and here’s why. It taught me to speak up when my classmates dared to call me something different and it taught me to demand respect from anyone who needed to call my name. I learned not to sacrifice something as important as my identity for the sake of not inconveniencing my peers. I learned to be patient and teach others to pronounce my name correctly, think Pauline but with a T, even if it took a dozen tries to get it right. Having an Armenian name taught me to stand up for myself and others, even if it meant that I had to stand alone.
Being raised Armenian also taught me to educate my peers. In third grade, my teacher handed each student a sheet of paper and told us to write down interesting facts about a country of our choice, which we would later present to the class. Naturally, I chose Armenia and the facts that I found interesting weren’t about Armenian foods or landmarks. Here’s what my third-grade self wrote:
“Taleen is a special name in Arminia because in Arminia there is an old village called Taleen and a lot of people live there. Turkish wanted to fight us because we were the first people to be Christian and the Turkish didn’t want us to be Christian and they wanted to have our land. Every ten Arminians fought back against hundreds of Turkish soldiers. April 24, 1915 is a memoriel day for the Arminian people because they killed over one million Arminian children, womans, men.”
Mind you, I didn’t know how to spell Armenia in third grade but I did know that Armenia was the first Christian nation and I did know about the genocide perpetrated against my ancestors. And in case you’re trying to figure out how old you were in third grade, the magic number is eight. While my classmates went up, one-by-one, educating the class about how the French eat snails and how fascinating the Great Wall of China is, eight-year old Taleen proudly went up and gave a history lesson about Armenians.
Most parents these days would cringe at the thought of an eight-year old having any knowledge about an attempted mass extermination of an entire race but my parents taught me about the history of my people at a fairly young age. They never sheltered me from the cruelties capable by man and they didn’t raise me with the false perception that there is no evil in this world. And because I was always acutely aware of my people’s past, I grew up with compassion and a constant desire to right a wrong. And it is for this very reason that I continuously found myself gravitating towards positions that involved public interest throughout law school. This constant desire to seek justice for people who are victimized and advocate for those who are oppressed was not just happenstance. This compassion was deeply rooted to a past that occurred long before I was ever born, a past that nearly annihilated the Armenian people, and being raised with knowledge of this past taught me to care for people other than myself.
Many people rolled an eye or two at my parents for their traditional approach to parenting while raising me and my brothers. Surely, they were told that their children would fall behind in school if they were taught Armenian before English, that they would become insecure if given un-American names, and that they’d be emotionally scarred if they were taught about the devastating past of their people before they were adults. But my parents, each fluent in four languages and raised to be Armenian in the Middle East and Europe, thought differently. They followed tradition in naming their children, raised their kids in a hayeren khoseer household where we only spoke Armenian, and educated us about both the victories and tragedies of our history. I can honestly and confidently say that all those eye-rollers were wrong. My brothers and I were not adversely affected by being raised Armenian, nor were any of our close friends who were raised similarly. Among our group are educated and intelligent Armenians who attended prestigious universities, graduated at the top of their classes, hold influential positions, and are successful entrepreneurs.
It doesn’t mean that a child with an American name or a child who doesn’t speak Armenian is any less capable of achieving success or possessing these qualities. All I’m saying is that if you’re foregoing an Armenian name for your child, choosing not to teach them the language or history, solely because it will be easier for them to assimilate, then maybe it would be worthwhile to think about the positive aspects of gifting them with a unique name, language, and history. Before being so quick in holding your child back from their own identity for the sake of convenience, let’s remember that parents are supposed to build their child’s potential, not limit it.
Armenians are a people whose history dates back thousands of years, a people who have lived through kingdoms, wars, and genocide, which means, we’re pretty damn good at persevering when all odds are against us. And your children are their descendants and they too will persevere. By raising your children to be Armenian, you will be raising them to be kind, compassionate, understanding, loving, and appreciative. You will be teaching them to stand up for themselves and others, to be a leader, and a hard worker. If for no reason at all, raise your children to be Armenian for their sake because being Armenian is a beautiful thing to be.