Does My Armenianness Embarrass You?


BY PAUL CHADERJIAN

Once there was and there was not …

I’ve been thinking about my dad all week. He would have been 80 this year, and we would have celebrated his birthday this week. Shy of his birthday, I received an e-mail Tuesday night from Steven, my best friend in junior and high school. Steven was alerting me that our mutual friend James’ father had passed away and the funeral was Friday, on my dad’s birthday.

It’s that time in our lives where our fathers are dying and we are becoming the adults. We are supposedly carrying their legacies, their surnames, their family histories, and their genomes to hand to our progeny, via DNA or via words and stories. But how good of a job are we doing with this singular human directive?

With deaths and funerals, I can’t help myself but ask, are we all that our fathers had hoped for us to be? Did they struggle and toil to provide for us to be proud or ashamed of our legacies, identities, stories. Did they shift their adult lives to nurture and protect us, so that we would be proud of our heritage. Or did their effort to raise us as Armenians fail because some among us are embarrassed of our ethnicity and try to hide it as much as we can.

Steven was my first American friend. His parents were of European ancestry and were both teachers. In my first year in Fresno, our 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Williams, had pulled Steven aside one day and told him to look out for me. Did she know what lay ahead? Had she seen the few immigrants at Hamilton Junior High School struggle before? Or had she found me way too “European” and too soft for a rough neck school where gang fights and rumors of impending gang fights entertained us during lunch breaks.

I needed a lot of looking out for in my first years in Fresno. This mythical birthplace of Saroyan and this very paper, Asbarez, was an uncivilized place for an immigrant kid. My dad had followed his younger brother Yeremia’s footsteps to Fresno. My uncle and his wife Marijeanne had followed my aunt Marijeanne’s aunt’s lead to Fresno. My aunt’s aunt Pearlantine had married an Armenian from Fresno and moved here after the Genocide. And Fresno had impressed my father and his brother with its six Armenian churches and large Armenian community. It had been an idyllic place for my father to send us from Beirut and the death and carnage of the Civil War.

Steven, and later in high school, James, were both kind, accepting friends. I was the foreigner with the accent and strange last name no one could pronounce – not even that sole Armenian teacher whom I enlisted to sponsor an Armenian Club. Steven was my real teacher, my ears and my eyes, and James would be the first Armenian friend I would make. He would show me it was okay to be an Armenian at our high school, where rich white kids from the North side were forcibly bussed to promote desegregation.

The neighborhood’s non-white kids – the stereotypical ones who snuck behind the lockers to smoke – were not our problem, ironically. The problem were the Izod wearing, beer-guzzling, coke-snorting sons and daughters of privilege who clearly did not dress, talk, or study like those of us from around Fresno High School. That was the climate in which Steven and James kept me company and helped me try to get acculturated.

Our parents had given up everything they had to protect us from a violent war, but the blessings and safety of America came with the price emigrants pay when they are confronted by the minority of xenophobic or perhaps even ethno-phobic people. My lot included the white kids from North Fresno and even some of my teachers. My American Government instructor would mimic me pronouncing the article ‘the’ as ‘deh.’ She would command I pronounce my words right and fix my accent as the rest of the class laughed. And these were the “Mentally Gifted Minors” classes with kids who had no gift of empathy and had been bussed in to spread their intolerance.

So much for the superficial fantasy-land of cultural harmony and acceptance attributed to William Saroyan. In the Human Comedy, he wrote about Ithica and the people with the Macauley smile, the smile that said ‘yes’ to life. But in the late 70s and early 80s, even though the legendary author still rode around Fresno on his bicycle, his wisdom and humor hadn’t survived. The image of Fresno we attribute to him was not where I lived.

Armenians had moved away from Fresno to Hollywood and Glendale or simply vanished, assimilated. Thousands of ethnic Armenians had melted into the invisible, gentrified non-ethnic Fresno. Left behind were a few Armenian families like James’, who had kept their surname but had no connection to things Armenian. Joining them were newcomers, who would later recreate a new Armenia in Fresno. But back in the 80s, newcomers wanted to distance themselves like those two nameless sisters who came to Fresno High from Beirut or Aleppo. They would always say they had to practice typing during lunch breaks as an excuse not to come to Armenian Club meetings. I hope they mastered the IBM Selectrics and are great typists now.

We’ve come through a lot, you and I. We haven’t had a smooth ride: the price of Christianity, centuries to Turkic rule, Genocide, deportations, sovietization, banishment to Siberia, an earthquake, a civil war in Beirut, a revolution in Iran, and always being the foreigners. These are perhaps the reason why some of us are ashamed of our ethnicity, ashamed of being Armenian in America.

With so much mockery and hatred, so much alienation and isolation, how can you not be? And of course we fuel our own negative self-image, which in turns fuels our shame. Open the paper, and there you have the Armenian suspects who committed fraud at the tune of millions. Turn on your “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news and hear about the Armenian gangbanger who did away with his girlfriend and escaped to Yerevan.

Perhaps this reality was the intention of the planners of our Genocide. Perhaps they knew that even if a handful would survive, they would forever be outcasts in foreign lands and never fully return to being Armenians on their own soil, living freely without inhibitions, being free to continue their ancient culture. And insult to injury, US congressmen have the audacity to debate that there was a Genocide and whether I am one big lie. But we are not a lie. We exist, some of us with shame.

Last week, my first Armenian coworker in the television news business, a cameraman I worked with in Fresno a decade ago, wrote me an e-mail during the Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on Capitol Hill to ask: “Wally, why can’t we just let this be? My grandmother, who survived the Genocide used to say, leave it all to God. He’ll sort it out.” Sheldon went on to say that he was embarrassed at the youth who rallied on the street with their Armenian flags and just wanted to understand why validation by the US was so important to us.

And if all this pathology is my personal reaction to Genocide, so be it. All that I am is this insisting that I am Armenian, because I wouldn’t escape my last name or was ingrained by my parents that I would never forget who I was and whose I was. If I am only the man who would never dare to be Paul Chad and reinvent myself in the land of new beginnings, so be it.

Identity issues have been on my mind all week, since my week began Sunday with an awkward scene involving me and my North Hollywood neighbor from Gyumri, Arsen. He and I walked into an Armenian market for lahmajoons, somethings Fresnans still call Armenian pizzas. The young female clerk said hello to us in Armenian, and I replied back in Armenian. I gave her our order in Armenian, and Arsen asked her in English if she could heat the lahmajoons.

“Tu hye chess (You’re not Armenian),” the clerk said to him. Before Arsen answered, she prodded a bit more and said to him, “how come YOU don’t speak Armenian.” Of course, he does, I said defending Arsen. “He’s from Gyumri.”

When I heard myself, I had to stop when I realized I was playing a pro-Armenian diplomat between two Armenia natives. And I was the odd man out, the kid born in the Paris of Arabia, who grew up in the armpit of America, then spent a few years in the heart of Armenia. I wondered why we often resort to English when we are in public and clearly among others whose first-tongue is Armenian.

Sarky Mouradian’s caricatures used to scream from our TV screens years ago, “this is America, speak English.” And we all did and do. Then somewhere down the road after living in Armenia, I discovered the novelty of being able to say hello in Armenian to fellow Armenians in America. It was a newfound connection, perhaps unreal, but I feel it when I greet seniors who made eye contact with me in Southern California or when I give grocery store clerks named Gor my greenbacks at checkout lines at Jon’s .

My extreme friendliness with random Armenian strangers, however, doesn’t sit too well with my friends and my lahmajoon-eating neighbor from Gyumri. I make my friends uncomfortable sometimes, especially when the Armenian I greet responds with a sour face, a momentary pause, and then speaks to me in English with a heavy Armenian accent. These awkward replies in English happen more often in Glendale than say Eagle Rock or Hollywood.

My neighbor has been on his own, difficult journey as a survivor of the ‘88 Earthquake, making his way to the Bolshoi Ballet and then to Hollywood. He had to change his Armenian surname to score roles as Russian characters in the movies.

When I made Arsen uncomfortable at the lahmajoon stand last Sunday, I wondered, is this all part of our unaddressed post-Genocidal trauma and drama. Is this my personal pathology of identity or one that I share with other Armenians? Is this pathetic struggle something that the three (lower case) ottoman pashas cursed upon us? Or is this struggle part of a mission I’ve created for myself to rest the souls of my father, James’ father, and others who have passed?

I wonder what our fathers would say to us from up there, somewhere…

And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.  

8 Responses

for “Does My Armenianness Embarrass You?”

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  2. Lara Garibian says:

    I'd like to start off by saying that you are absolutely right… Genocide plagues our people daily. Sadly, however, it is very rarely recognized. The effects of what we experience are due to “historical trauma.” Every culture who has been through genocide, slavery, racism, etc. faces the left over atrocities. As an ethnic group, we can never fully experience any kind of closure with out validity. The fact that the country we live in, that preaches justice and rights, fails to acknowledge our truth and our history only allows for the internal effects of genocide to continue. I think ultimately people who can't deal with these realities are the ones who are most ashamed or embarrassed of who they are. I really really enjoyed this article and I think it makes a very enlightening point that in order to feel pride and progress forward we must first look at our history and come to terms with how devastating it was… just my thought…

  3. Hagop Kiledjian says:

    Genocide has not only left the normal feelings of being foreigners everywhere we have been outrooted to. It also left serious pathologies of mental disorders caused by the horrors witnessed. And later transmited to their children as personality disorders. They have a lot to apologize for what they did, not just recognize. We'll see……

  4. sebouh from australia says:

    Ecellent article!Bravo hayrenagist!I have an elderly neighbour..an old Jewish lady.she catches two buses, then a train every Saturday to go and purchase her meat from a kosher butcher.travelling at least 2 hour there and two hours back…when I asked her”Do you do this because he charges you a discount?” She replied that ” No, I would rather give my money that I spend to a fellow Jew!”.Hence , if your argument was correct, why do the Jews support each other while we , generally, undermine each other?I feel its because many Armenians are not true Armenians…and I define a true Armenian as Serop Pasha,Antranig etc…the rest are false pretenders

  5. john papazian says:

    I go out of my way to make sure my Armenianness embarreses every one. How does America,with its Christian values,just turn its back on the worlds 1st Christian nation? Embarrased? Every time I hear some rightous dullard drone on from the Bible I feel like shaking them ’till they wake up!

  6. Yervant says:

    Interesting read indeed Paul! Thank you

  7. Hebard Hai says:

    An excellent article Paul! I have pondered over these thoughts for years now and I’m 34 years old. My father is still alive and we have discussed these issues together. I read him your piece upon which he answered your columns final question with two words “hazar amot”. We live up north in Canada. The melting pot is a bit stronger down there than it is up here in our quaint multicultural mosaic where the emphasis is supposedly on ‘integration’ of differences rather than on the ‘melting’ of differences. That said however, some of our kinsmen here suffer from that same debilitating syndrome of being embarrassed of their Armenianness but I am convinced it’s rooted in ignorance of Armenianness.

    Unfortunately, the embarrassment and thus watering down of our Armenianness is not only confined to the language we choose to speak amongst our own people but also in the naming of our children in North America. There seems to be trend in North American Armenian communities for new parents to name their progeny non-Armenian names perhaps also out of embarrassment. Some say it’s easier for the kids to integrate (i.e. assimilate) into society if they have non-Armenian names. A bloody shame really. Isn’t – making it difficult for our kids to assimilate – the point of our whole endeavor to survive and thrive in these lands? This has nothing to do with respect for North American society but everything to do with us understanding North America’s basic tolerance of cultural diversity amongst its populace. Your taxes don’t increase or decrease based on your level of Armenianness relative to your neighbor. You don’t survive and thrive in business by trying to be the same as everyone else! The same goes for life. Being Armenian is about being different and understanding why we are different. We have good reasons and every right to be different in a tolerant society just like every other member from any cultural background.

    Many wouldn’t consider it insulting or disrespectful to keep the names of your cultural heritage alive. Most North Americans have learned to say Mohamed and Ali, Ahlam and Mussah. Is it really that much of a stretch for North Americans to learn to appreciate and properly pronounce our Christian Armenian names like Megirdetch, Khatchig, Heripsime, Boghos and Nvart? Will naming our kids with Armenian names really make it more difficult for them to “integrate” into North American society or will it help them further explore their cultural origins and always remember who their great grandparents were and what they fought so hard to keep un-assimilatable amongst the next generation? You and I can understand and appreciate the origins of different names like Mohamed. Why can’t WE tolerate OUR OWN cultures names like Megirdetch and appreciate their difference from all the rest? Michael, Bob, Harry and James will surely understand to appreciate and pronounce our names properly in a pluralistic society. After all that’s what this land (Canada and the US) is about: learning to be tolerant and understanding of different cultures.

    PS – Paul, your name in Armenian is Boghos and that’s what I will refer to you as from now on! Well written and keep up the great work.

  8. Cristina says:

    Sebouh, i agree with what you say. As much as i don’t like ( some) Jews, we have alot to learn from them in what concerns Miasnutyun.
    They stick together, that is what makes them so strong and that is what gives them the huge influence they have today… Why can’t we do that too..?

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