Lost in Translation- Part I

By Christopher Yemenidjian (Guest Contributor)

Among the first Armenians who immigrated to the United States and the succeeding generations of Armenian-Americans, there have been phrases, terminologies, mannerisms, and behaviors that hold distinctly different meanings from those of non-Armenians. My non-Armenian friends have slowly learned the difference between Pacific Standard Time and Armenian time. They have seen our tables filled with food and wondered if more would be joining us. We aren’t the most straight-forward group of people, and we require a bit of conditioning to be properly understood. This series is intended to provide the necessary insight into how Armenians think, act, and operate, a means of bridging the gap between ourselves and our non-Armenian counterparts.

Disclaimer: The notes below are based on real-life experiences. They are not intended to insult, disparage, or disrespect Armenians or non-Armenians in any way, shape, or form. They may not reflect the views of every Armenian, and are not intended to do so. This piece is purely written for entertainment purposes. 

  1. “I will be there in 15 minutes”

Ordinary Meaning: I am about 10 – 20 minutes away.

Armenians: I am just now about to get in my car and should be there within an hour or two.

  1. “My dream is a small intimate wedding”

Ordinary Meaning: Similar to an elopement with less than 100 people (being generous).

Armenians: At least 300 people, and you just broke your mother’s heart because now she can’t invite this couple whom you have never met. However, the couple invited your parents to their daughter’s wedding 8 years ago, and are therefore obligated to send them a wedding invitation. Not to do so is considered an insult of epic proportions.

  1. How to greet distant relatives

Ordinary way: With a handshake and a verbal greeting.

Armenians: Calculate the age and degree of consanguinity or affinity. Then select from the following list: handshake, a nod of the head, hug, or kiss on the cheek. If it is a kiss on the cheek, you must determine who will be the first to lean in. A slight miscalculation and you are left in an awkward position, and run the risk of offending your relative.

  1. A weekend barbecue

Ordinary Meaning: Hamburgers and hot dogs, and maybe a salad, properly apportioned to the number of guests.

Armenians: Beef Kebab, Chicken Kebab, Hummus, Lebne, Tabouleh, Fattoush, Rice, Basterma, Baba Ghanoush, Grilled Veggies, and a few other dishes that vary from house to house. Apportioned to feed about 3 villages in a 3rd world country for multiple days.

  1. The Mother from “Everybody Loves Raymond”

Ordinary Meaning: An overbearing, pain in your butt woman who does not exist.

Armenians: A mellow, toned down version of our mother or mother-in-law.

Christopher Yemenidjian graduated with a degree in Rhetoric from U.C. Berkeley and is currently a law student in Portland, Oregon.  He spends his free time playing video games, watching movies, and driving his family crazy.  He’s had vegan powers for the past four years and counting. 

Surviving

By Leta Stagno (Guest Contributor)

“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”

                        – Juliette Lewis

I wish I could say being born Armenian meant there was something inherently different about me biologically; that my ancestry caused redeeming and admirable characteristics like bravery and strength and altruism to be woven into my genetic code. I wish I could say that just the sheer fact that my ancestors were Armenian conditioned me to be the dynamic mesh of character traits that I am. But it didn’t. Had I experienced a severe cultural disconnect as a child, had I been raised with different moral ideals, had I grown up ignorant of my mother’s culture, a lot of my admirable (and not so admirable) qualities that I had so unwittingly attributed to my heritage would no longer define me, or exist within me at all. Brutal honesty, impossible stubbornness, loquacious tendencies- all personality traits I had attributed to my mother’s Armenian nature, all of which I had, without thought, assumed I had been born with. And yet, now, I’m acutely aware that had I been raised apart from my mother, had she not been such an integral and vital part of my upbringing, I may have turned out to be a very different person.

I think the only inherent trait I can directly attribute to my Armenian genetics is the unwavering determination to survive. While this is a basic biological trait, all species on earth are programmed with some genetic marker for self-preservation, something caused a genomic augmentation within Armenian DNA. Somehow the chromosomal allele mutated and adapted, making the will to survive an indestructible and distinctive factor woven within my interlocking ladders of nucleotides. Because of this genetic mutation, Armenians are an intrinsically hardy people. We are hard to kill, especially in spirit- a people that refuse to die. Where others would be motivated by hope, we are motivated by pride and the singular driving force of bitterness or spite is enough to fuel us to a near impossible end. We survive, we push through, we continue on through insurmountable odds and immeasurable strife. We are brave even in the face of death, vengeful to a fault, determined and unyielding.

And these are the qualities that kept me alive.

The problem with society today is that we always believe that bad things will never happen to us. Television and film have desensitized us, numbed us to the real horrors of the world. Things that should cause us to live in constant states of paranoia do the exact opposite; we sleep easier at night believing we are immune to the catastrophe around us.

So I grew up believing I was safe.

I spent my whole life hearing that I was strong; that I was strong-minded and strong-willed and that I was more than capable of taking care of myself. So I grew up both pitying abuse victims and sympathizing for them, but I was incapable of empathizing for them. I sighed deeply and judgmentally with the rest of the world when Rihanna confessed to still loving Chris Brown after he had beaten her. I saw her inability to disconnect from and resent her abuser as a sign of weakness, I saw her as frail and pathetic- what kind of woman is incapable of leaving the man who hit her? Even as a teenager I was bold and forthcoming- I was upfront and honest about what I wanted. I never backed down without a fight, I was never afraid to make enemies. So I never thought it would happen to me.

You hear it over and over again, the story about the frog in the boiling pot. It states that if you put a frog in boiling water it will instantly jump out, cognizant of the danger and pain it faces imminently; however, if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and then slowly increase the temperature until it is boiling, the frog will remain there until it dies, indifferent to its own demise. The moral of this story is the same justification given to victims of abuse for why they stay with their abuser. So when I was 19 and sat in my own pot of tepid water, by the time my flesh was charring from the scalding waves of my reality, it was too late.

All I can remember is that he was striking. My god, he was beautiful. And I was just a teenager, still shedding the skins of my over-extended awkward phase. I was both deeply unaware and uncomfortable with my new found sex appeal, like a child trapped within an adult body. He was grossly flattering, to such an extent that would now set off red flags, but then it felt like a real-life manifestation of my favorite romance novel. I think my naivety was part of my allure; the idea that he could be the first to break me was enticing to him.

It started off perfect, my tepid water bliss. I was smart, I was beautiful, I was wonderful. He built me up into some ethereal goddess. He was excessively dedicated and exceedingly attentive. I fell asleep to goodnight texts and woke up to good morning messages. I was his princess, his baby, his perfect girl. Until I wasn’t. I wish I could say I don’t remember the exact details of how it first happened. I wish I could say it was all one giant, horrible blur. But if there’s anything in my past I can recall with near crystal clear accuracy, it was the first time. I also wish I could say it was the last.

I already mentioned I have always been argumentative. I hate hearing I’m wrong, I hate people thinking I’m wrong. But I know when to bite my tongue. So for weeks, I bit down-hard. But as I grew more comfortable and as I felt safer, I became more vocal. I voiced my opinion, I spoke my mind, and for a short while it was fine. It was refreshing to be able to say things and know someone wanted to listen.

But one day, I said the wrong thing. We were alone in a parking lot, talking about something unimportant when he asked me if I would go home with him. I turned my head and laughed, jokingly proclaiming, “Never in your wildest dreams.”

There are still days where I have to fight myself to remember that it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have known that a lighthearted, flirtatious joke would end with a hand wrapped around my throat and me gasping for air. I could never have known that I would discover what it feels to know I’m going to die with hot tears streaming down my face while I choked up pleas for my life at 11:30 at night in a movie theater parking lot.

It was over quickly. I was more stunned than injured as I collapsed onto the pavement and sucked in more air than necessary. He crouched down while I kneeled on all fours, like a wounded animal at his mercy, and he tucked my hair behind my ear while he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sorry” was always his phrase of choice. Sometimes he would say, “I can’t help it”, others, “I wasn’t always like this”. At a certain point I think he just started to run out of things to say and would just resign himself to wiping the tears off my face. I spent more of my relationship wearing scarves and layering foundation, covering up hand marks where other girls would have covered up hickeys, than I spent happy.

But I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t because I loved him or because I was afraid he would hurt me if I left, it was because he did to me what most abusers do to their victims, he made me feel worthless to everyone but him. When the physical abuse started, so did the verbal abuse. I was fat and no one else would ever want to be with someone like me. I was grossly unattractive. I was a dumb slut who was a waste of everyone’s time. But he professed that he had somehow found it in his heart to see past all those things and still want to be with me. So I stopped waking up to good morning text messages and instead woke up to pictures of me where he would critique every flaw and say he was the only person who could learn to live with them. He valiantly confessed I should pity him for not only putting up with me but for the fact that he had been so damaged by his previous relationship that it was obvious justification for destroying me. I lived every day in abject misery, incapable of escaping because I wholeheartedly believed that what he told me was true.

I don’t remember when it was that I realized my relationship was going to kill me. Whether it be the eating disorder, the violent physical abuse, or such severe mental atrophy that I would eventually choose to give up entirely, I knew that I was going to die. It’s a sobering thought, to feel yourself on the precipice between life and death, aware that you are the only one capable of saving yourself.

Albert Camus wrote multiple philosophical books on the idea that the hardest decision we make as humans is choosing between living and killing ourselves. For years we have scoffed at this idea, a generation that sees mental illness as more a personal weakness than a debilitating disease. For almost my whole life I too fell victim to the negative stigma, I saw suicide victims as both gravely sad and terribly tragic, but also selfishly frail. So when I too was caught in Camus’s philosophical net, torn between continuing my life and dying, I finally understood what I had been so ignorant of before.

The thing about wanting to die is that it makes you explicitly aware of exactly everything you’re living for. And that made me exceptionally angry. I was so young and so brimming with potential; my future was blindingly bright and all I could think about was how badly I never wanted to see it. So where before I had been possessed with a crippling sense of worthlessness, I was now filled with seething bitterness.

I didn’t decide to end the relationship that was slowly killing me because I woke up one day with a new found self-worth. I didn’t choose to continue my life because I saw through the haze of lies and manipulation meant to trap me. I didn’t realize I could do better. Instead, I woke up one day pissed the fuck off.

I don’t know if the fact that I’m only half Armenian is to blame for the fact that my genetic coding to “proceed through all costs” kicked in a little later than expected, but it did. Where other abuse victims can say they chose to leave through new found self-love or through support from friends and family, I chose to do so because my ancestors didn’t break their backs for centuries so their most privileged descendant could be ruined at the hands of a ridiculously insignificant man. So it was also pride. I was bitter and vengeful and full of spite. And it was also shame, to be a living member of a generation that was never meant to exist, to have grown up among stories of such immense courage and bravery and resilience and yet somehow, through all of my gifts and privilege, still manage to possess enough inherent frailty to let the empty words and actions of an emptier man erase my family’s history. How my ancestors must have wept from their unmarked graves while I let him treat me with the same physical brutality that they had died to show me I could overcome.

And thus I overcame it. Like an alcoholic weans himself from the poison in his cup, I slowly went through remission, gradually and painfully removing myself from the source of my misery. I less and less let myself fall victim to both his words and his fists. I saw myself more as what I could be and less of what I was in that moment. I acknowledged my own mental and physical willpower and I left my abuser, battered and bruised and broken but stronger than ever.

Because this is not a sob story. This is not a tale of tragedy, of immense grief, of loss and suffering; it’s a story of survival. Because that’s all I did, I survived. And while it would be wrong of me to say that the only reason that I did was because my ancestry can be traced back to a small country in Eastern Europe, it would be just as incorrect to say that my heritage had nothing to do with my ability to remove myself from chains I had watched being formed. I am no hero but I am also no victim, I’m just a girl who used her courageous ancestry as a source of strength in a time of dire need. I’m just a girl who already had markers for persistence pre-programmed within her genome and who just needed a catalyst to drive them out of dormancy. I’m just a girl who was lucky enough to be born Armenian.

Leta Stagno is a graduate student currently pursuing a Masters in Biology. Originally from Florida, she now divides her time between her old home in Fort Lauderdale and her new one in Chicago. She enjoys baking and writes love notes with cooking utensils and oven mitts.

If I Could Visit Armenia Someday

By Tamar Hovsepian (Guest Contributor)

If I could go to Armenia one day, where would I go?  The answer does not come easy for someone like me who never visited Armenia and would like to go and visit very badly.  There are so many beautiful historical sites, sacred churches and monuments in our homeland, Armenia, that I’ve heard about and would love to see. However, the one place that stands out for me is the Armenian Genocide Memorial, Tsitsernakaberd.

This Armenian Genocide Memorial is found in Yerevan and construction started in 1965 after Armenians demonstrated in Armenia on the 50th anniversary of the genocide. The construction of the monument was completed in 1968. Every year on April 24, thousands of Armenians from Armenia and around the world commemorate the anniversary of the genocide by laying flowers around the eternal flame. I have never been to Armenia, but when I do go, the first place I want to visit will be the Armenian Genocide Memorial because it will be the place where I will lay flowers and say our Lord’s Prayer Hayr Mer for the souls of my ancestors who perished away at the hands of Turks.

This genocide monument in Yerevan is dedicated to the memory of all my ancestors who perished in the first genocide of the twentieth century. This is a very painful part of our history and a human disaster, a very personal one for me because my great-grandparents and family members from both my mother’s and father’s side were victims of this terrible crime. They lost their lives, their farmlands and their homeland. Listening to very personal stories about the genocide from my mom who heard it firsthand from her surviving great-aunt definitely makes me want to go Tsitsernakaberd to remember, pay my respect, and honor the victims by lighting a candle and laying flowers on the ground as millions of people did and will continue to do.

Tamar Hovsepian is an 8th grade student in Philadelphia.  She attends Haigazian Armenian School on the weekends and is a member of Meghry Dance Group, where she performs and exercises her passion for Armenian dance.  Tamar loves theatre, playing the piano, and painting.  

A Douchebag from Glendale

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:

1.

1

2.

2

3.

3

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:

4

and

5

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.

Mayrig

By Dr. Kay Mouradian (Guest Contributor)

My mayrig and I had an endearing relationship. She never interfered with my life, never held me back from exploring or living in many parts of this glorious planet and I always returned home. My mayrig lived by a philosophy that you hold by letting go. Pretty remarkable for this small 5-foot woman who survived the Armenian Genocide, whose life had been colored by the horrors of the past and who dwelled on the loss of her family who had perished at the hands of the Turks.

In 1988 I went to Aleppo, Syria, to search for the family who had given my mayrig refuge. Incredibly, I found the one remaining descendant. Born after my mother had left Aleppo, the handsome woman knew all about the 14-year-old Armenian girl, Flora, who had cared for her two sisters. Delighted to meet me, she gave me a gift I still cherish today–photos of her sisters, her mother and of her father, a kind man who treated my mother as one of his own.

The day after our extraordinary meeting I received a call from home. Mayrig was back in the hospital. I immediately left for Los Angeles. With her heart laboring in cardiac care, her doctor did not expect her to survive the night. Three of us sat at her bedside, waiting. Mayrig had been unresponsive. Then she started to speak.

“Do you know why I’m still here?” she asked, sounding as if she knew a great truth. She looked at my cousin and said, “Because you don’t have any children.” She turned toward me and again said, “Because you don’t have any children.” Then to my nephew sitting nearby she said, “And you don’t have any children. If I died no one would know.”

“They showed me a lot of pictures,” she continued.

I wondered who “they” were. I knew people with near-death experiences claimed to view their lives at the moment of death. Was my mother sharing the same kind of vision with whoever “they” were?

She looked at my cousin. “Your mother was there.” His mother had died thirty years earlier. She mentioned seeing an Armenian family who was a karmic mirror of her family and told us prophetic things that would happen to members of our own family. Two of them have already come to pass.

“They showed the afghans,” she said. She had made afghans for everyone over the years; relatives, neighbors, my friends, her friends, and my sister’s friends. Interestingly, after this vision she made them specifically for disabled veterans.

She turned her gaze to me. “You’re going to write a book about my life.”

“No, Mom, not me,” I said. “Maybe your other daughter will. She’s the real Armenian in the family.”

“No! You are!” Then she ended her little speech with, “They said it was my choice.”

Now, that sentence gripped my attention. I’ve spent my adult life trying to make right choices, and it is not ever an easy thing and now my mother had made the choice to stay on in defiance of her body’s fragile and deathly state.

Against the odds she rallied, a few days later she was released from the hospital. In the middle of her first night home I heard her stir. I rushed into her bedroom and turned on the light. There she sat in bed, her face absolutely radiant. She gave me a huge smile. “Do you know what life is all about?” she asked, not waiting for a reply. “It’s all about love and understanding, but everyone’s brain is not the same, so you help when you can. That’s what life’s all about.” She smiled, laid herself down and went back to sleep. I will never forget that night.

The next day she again couldn’t move without help. I had dismissed much of her vision on that hospital bed as delusion. I certainly had no plans to write a book about her or the Armenian tragedy. But I began to read about events that happened in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and became overwhelmed. I had not known the depth of the Armenian tragedy, and I began to understand my mother’s heartbreaking scars and those of Armenian survivors everywhere. Now I knew my mother’s story needed to be told. But at the time I had no idea that years later I would meet a filmmaker and he would turn her story into a documentary.


Dr. Kay Mouradian is an educator, filmmaker, and author of My Mother’s Voice, a book depicting her mother’s story as a victim and survivor of the Armenian Genocide.  She also wrote, narrated, and co-produced My Mother’s Voice, a documentary based on her book.  She holds a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University and holds degrees from Boston University and UCLA.

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.

Pulling Teeth

By Melissa Lake

Growing up, my Aunt always used to say that getting Turks and Armenians to interact amicably was like “pulling teeth”. And by all literal comparisons, she was completely right- it was often a bloody, difficult, painful task that left things sore and only slightly better off than when they started. And call it fate, or divine intervention, or the cruel tragedy of the reality of my life, but I discovered first hand in a literal sense the symbolic meaning behind the “pulling teeth” struggle between the Armenians and the Turks.

I was born with a rare genetic defect that caused two of my adult premolars to never form and thus the baby teeth remained to serve as my pseudo-adult teeth. For generations this issue has existed within my mother’s family and it has never been a large cause for concern. For 20 years, my soft fragile, baby teeth remained in my mouth, slowly being eaten away by everyday use- decaying and softening. And then the time came where it was finally time for them to go and my uncle (who has the same problem) assured my mother that he “had a friend” who could take them out for me and place an implant in.

And thus began the most illegitimate medical experience of my entire life. The dentist was an Armenian, with only a foreign dental license so consequently he was forbidden from legally practicing in the U.S. He had been running an under-the-table dental operation within the heart of the largest Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia itself and his clientele were mostly older Armenians. The “office” was located in a warehouse; it shared the building with an auto repair shop and metal factory. There was no sign, nothing that would indicate that any sort of medical professional worked in the building. The only thing that would possibly allude to the fact that there was more to this building than heavy metal work was an Armenian last name pasted onto the glass front door in faded and peeling block sticker letters. When my uncle rang the doorbell, a large man with a thick mustache and a white apron I’ve only ever seen butchers in meat markets wear opened the door. My first instinct was flight, and as my knees tensed ready to help me escape, my mother smelled my fear and pushed me in.

The office looked exactly as how I always pictured a third-world dentist office would look. The machinery had at least a good 20 years on me, sharp metal instruments were lain strewn about. The paint was peeling from the walls and directly in front of me was a large canvas painting of a countryside with Armenian lettering scrawled on the bottom. I was terrified. I had spent my whole life in professional dental offices to come here- a place where I could almost hear the echoes of the screams from previous patients reverberating off the walls. “If there was a God, he could not help me now”- I thought to myself in panic as the large dentist examined my tooth, his gloveless hands in my mouth. All I could see was his thick mustache moving as he talked in Turkish to my mom and uncle, the panic in me swelling. He X-rayed my teeth to confirm what I had known my entire adult life- that the baby teeth were all I had-no adult teeth would be making an appearance to take their place. And as he was explaining this to me, he reached into one of his drawers and pulled out a set of pliers that I pray were designed solely for medical use and looked at me as he said in a broken, accent stained English “the tooth needs to come out today”.

If I had ever felt fear before in my life it was nothing to what I felt then. Every muscle ached as they strained to fight every one of my survival reflexes and remain seated while adrenaline pumped through my body. I turned to my mother and begged “Please just knock me out”. They all laughed, like captors laugh at frightened prey. He pulled out a needle and assured me that I wouldn’t feel a thing and as he poked my gums with it and injected the liquid into the base of my tooth, my eyes shot daggers at my mother. As he waited for my mouth to numb, my mom asked him in English about his children, probably thinking that my panic would subside hearing a language I could understand (she was wrong). He talked about how his daughter was going to dental school, how she would be the fourth generation dentist in the family. And my mother, who could never pass up an opportunity to pry deep into someone’s past, asked him about his grandfather who had practiced in Istanbul. He asked me about how numb I felt, reached for his pliers and told my mom, “My grandfather was the best dentist in Istanbul. The Turks would never admit it, but even they would go see him and deny it if anyone asked.” At this point, the pliers were snug around my tooth, wiggling back and forth, and then accompanied by the most horrifying tearing sound you could imagine. I could hear every tendon ripping and I could feel nothing. When the tooth was finally out, after my mom made sure to ask if she could keep it, the dentist had me rinse my mouth and while I was bent over spitting up blood, he patted my back and jokingly said, “Aren’t you glad you’re Armenian? Any other dentist would have taken twice as long.” My mom and my uncle both laughed and I gave my best attempt at a smile, the half-numbness of my face causing me to look like I was suffering a stroke.

If I was capable of speaking, I would have told him I’m happy to be Armenian every day, maybe just not so much on days that it means brutal medical procedures. I’m happy and proud and honored to be part of a people who have faced and still face callous discrimination and are able to move past it and through it with grace and dignity. And the day may never come when relations between Turks and Armenians are free from enmity and vehemence, where Armenians are no longer seen as inferiors, where seeking their help is no longer a thing of shame, but we have always been a strong people and we will continue to be a strong people, one tooth pulling at a time.

Ermeni

By Taleen Mardirossian

You can count on two things when bad news is dispersed in my family; synchronized gasps and my grandmother’s voice, “Asdvads tushnameeyis chee tsutsuneh.”   If someone has been diagnosed with cancer, or a life has ended prematurely, or an elder is placed in a retirement home, God forbid, my grandmother makes a plea to God to save everyone, even her enemies, from whatever tragedy has taken place.  One time when I was young, I confronted her, “What about the Turks?”  They had, in fact, killed our ancestors and stolen our lands, and based on the morals instilled in my household, good people didn’t kill, hate, or steal, so the Turks couldn’t possibly be good people.  And so I wondered if her wishes to God extended to them too, or if they had earned themselves a category far worse than “enemy”.  Being an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of person, her response surprised me, “Even the Turks.”  So I imagined, there must be some good ones if my grandmother prays for them too.

Unfortunately, my first encounter with a Turk was not a good one and the ignorance, hatred, and utter disrespect I experienced made me question why my grandmother was praying for people who wished nothing but the worst upon us.  After being prey to a merciless predator for so long, one would imagine that almost a century later, hatred would be replaced with remorse and empathy. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; or so I once believed. Among the very short list of people who have earned my utmost respect is the name of a Turk, Taner Akçam. I am not oblivious to the fact that there are Turks who acknowledge the Genocide and have even risked their lives for the sake of publicly making it known to their very democratic government.  But it always seemed as though this was a rarity since I had never come into contact with a Turk who accepted the wrongdoings of their predecessors or wished Armenians well. That is, until now.

After painting the perfect shade of pale pink polish on my nails, I carefully opened my laptop, and sorted through the unread messages in my inbox, while waiting for my nails to dry. And there it was, a response to one of my previous posts, from an unfamiliar name that I recognized as being Turkish. Clicking on the name, I already knew exactly what this was, another unpleasant message from a Turk.  The entire message was written in Turkish so I didn’t understand any of it, none but one word, Ermeni, meaning Armenian.  I instantly knew I was being attacked for not only being Armenian, but for expressing my thoughts about a genocide that, apparently, never occurred.  To be quite frank, I’ve never cared about the opinions of others, and this was no exception.  I didn’t know what these words meant and I really didn’t care to find out so I closed the screen, slipped on my Toms, and went about my day without giving it a second thought.  The following morning, my dad said something in Turkish.

“Dad that reminds me, someone from Istanbul sent a message.”

“Saying what?”

“I don’t know. Probably talking shit, what else?”

“Let me see it,” he responded nonchalantly.

My dad is a man of a million remarkable qualities, one of them being his ability to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the midst of ferocity. Being my father’s daughter, I knew just by peering into his eyes that he was angry. As we entered our favorite restaurant, the hostess escorted us to our table as I fumbled for my phone in my large bag, overfilled with everything from highlighters to pepper spray. I handed my phone over to my dad, and watched his facial expression change as he read those Turkish words.  Seconds later, he gave me the “Really Taleen?” look.  I was confused and he could tell. He then started reading the message out loud in Turkish, before finally translating.

“I will forever be with you Armenians, until the end. Signed, with love always.”

Wait, what? If it weren’t for the smile on his face, I would have thought that this was a really bad joke. Even after a minute of trying to process this information, I still didn’t know what to think so I handed the phone back to my dad, demanding that he read it a second time, at which point, he was offended that I was questioning his fluency in Turkish.  But there’s no way.

I automatically placed you in the “brainwashed” category without even understanding the meaning of your words. I allowed the actions of a few Turks to taint the good intentions of another.  I admire you for seeking your own truth, when buying the one your government tried to sell you was a cheaper option. I now realize that your kind and loving words should not have come as a surprise. After all, my grandmother has been praying for you all of these years.

 

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.

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.