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.