Belonging and Belongings
BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there were and there were not golden, grand, palatial, marbled malls of commerce in modern-day Dubai that are incomprehensibly surreal and amazing. But this column starts with the premise of the more conventional malls of commerce in our incredible and bountiful American nation.
In the fashion fairs, park plazas, grand gallerias, and other generic malls of the American suburbs, the world outside our borders dissolve to nothingness. When we are there, we focus on wanting and having. We see the goods, abundance, the colors, the cleanliness, the air conditioned carpeted and tiled environments.
Inside these grandiose architectural halls of business, a shopper or spectator loses himself to the reality of the global human experience. We forget that there can be ungodly places where other human beings at that very same moment are doing their living, eating, shopping, or sleeping.
These unimaginable places are not only south of the border or thousands of miles away across oceans, but Third World poverty and squalor exist a stone’s throw from the mall I was shopping at last night. Less than 30 miles out of Fresno are places that illegal, migrant farm workers call home. These are places without water and air conditioning, dilapidated and unimaginable conditions not acceptable as a place to live.
But this column isn’t about poverty in the US; it’s about the best of the US and the enigma of our relationship to the Homeland – that other place we often think about.
Inside North Fresno malls or a mall near you, the masses walk, talk, smile, enjoy comfortable spaces with other civil and courteous people. You hear chatter, children’s laughter, and soft instrumental tunes from pop songs of yesteryear. There may even be sounds from an arcade or music from a carousel.
There are colorful displays, big television screens with music videos, commercials, framed advertising posters of the most beautiful of human specimen – women with big lips and proud chests, men in tight jeans flexing their stomach muscles. There are also scents of all sorts. Pleasant and citrusy, flowery or musky, sexy scents from perfume and cologne counters. Then comes the temptations, the appetizing smells of fresh waffles being baked in ice cream shops or the always-present aroma of delectables from Mrs. Fields.
You power shop, leisurely walk, socialize, and enjoy the peacefulness and safety of American malls. You watch people, look at their clothing, see the bright colors, the healthy faces or people living the good life, and you are happy.
These images and sounds, the commerce, the affluence always amaze me. I am in awe of all the things we can touch, try, buy, and take home in fancy bags. I especially love the thousands of volumes of books in bookstores, books I could never finish reading in a lifetime.
I love the idea of a society at its best – healthy populations, employed, insured, satisfied, protected. I love the idea that we can come to places like this for half-an-hour or even all day. Some pop in for ten minutes to buy one item. Others come to change their lives and their wardrobe.
Families come to buy new slender TVs. Teens come to get the hottest new fashions. Movie buffs comes to populate the multiplex. Others come for concerts and arts and crafts fairs on weekends. Seniors come to watch younger people. Boys come for the girls. Girls come to be seen. Others show up hours before the stores open to exercise, walking up and down glistening indoor or outdoor promenades.
Malls are magical places in this day and age considering what’s out there in the rest of the world.
At this moment, there are rockets blazing across enemy lines, buses toppling into ravines, bullets whistling, flash floods, bodies exploding, armies moving, flotillas of aid being commandeered, and barrels and barrels of oil bleeding from Mother Earth because there are places like these malls.
Outside these magical places are famines and abused workers in sweatshops, working, living, trying to survive. There are ongoing farm invasions and genocides in Africa. And there is always ethnic violence somewhere.
There are dust storms in drought-stricken nations ruled by mobs and warlords who would never create infrastructure to bring needed drinking and irrigation water to those they rule. There are cities where the population is so out of control that people live like ants on the streets.
Then there are those people being abused. There are addictions, depression, racism, hatred, violence, and hopelessness.
All these are things that come to the mall with me and with you but remain outside, sometimes.
I write about these great malls of commerce because I was inside a North Fresno Target last night to buy toddler gates. My aging Chihuahua-Terrier, Toby, is forgetting where he is supposed to do his business, and we now have to restrict his visa during certain hours of the day so that there are no more accidents inside the house.
The restricted visa was on my mind as I was walking around in awe of all the things on the shelves. There were thousands of things, different brands, interesting slogans pitching one product over another. The power to buy these things, the empowerment I felt, and the company of other people also pushing their carts with the same ability to buy and have were all extremely pleasing.
Pushing a cart down endless isles makes one forget the entire financial scheme of consumerism and the world impact this bounty has on other people elsewhere. You forget child labor, slavery, the unpracticed concept of earning a living wage, unchecked qualities, illegal chemicals, litigation, tariffs, blockades, layoffs, bank bailouts…
I was thinking about restricting my dog’s movements in the house in terms of a visa because right before I entered the Target, I had received a call from a former coworker from Armenia who is now working for my former employer in the US. My former employer needed my help composing in English a request for a worker visa for another former coworker from Armenia.
I helped formulate the language for the letter and then entered the new Target. I was thinking how lucky this young man will be when he receives his visa and comes to join the other Armenia-natives making TV shows in the US. I saw my own city and country in a new light. I saw it in the eyes of the young man who shops in Tavitashen or takes a crowded minibus to work from the so-called Bangladesh neighborhood in Yerevan. I saw the Target in the eyes of all those millions outside our borders who want to be here.
I wanted to pinch myself in gratitude, and I said, Thank You. I was actually here. The American Dream was my reality.
Our Targets and Walmarts and malls are always a culture shock even to me, especially after I return from other places. The first entrance to an average grocery store after time in Armenia is always an amazing experience. I love the coziness of Armenian and even French grocery stores, but they lack volume and choices. They are so much more compact and practical than the ones we have in the States. The selections are smaller, the goods are smarter, the servings are conservative.
These larger stores in the US, the box stores, the large open spaces, the huge isles, the larger baskets and carts, the clean spaces, the air-conditioning, the beautiful young people with smiles on their faces, the ample parking lots are like being at Disneyland compared to places in Kolkata or Bourdj Hamoud or in Estonia and Tunisia. No wonder the rest of the world wants to be in the US, to have, to earn, to partake in these privileges.
Putting the toddler gates into my cart and thinking about stopping people who want to be elsewhere in the world made me depressed. Why can’t we ever be happy where we are? I kept thinking about trying to stop Toby from entering rooms while someone with a whole life ahead of him wanted permission to enter the States.
I thought about how hard it has been for generations of immigrants to fit into the mainstream of America. Even some second and third generation Armenians have a hard time breaking into the inner circles – say in media or entertainment or elected office.
This very bountiful society, which accents homogeneity and worships the most beautiful and most successful, always makes the non-homogeneous marginal. For there to be insiders in our society, the insiders have to dub some people as outsiders.
Foreigners and ethnics with unpronounceable names are the easiest to target. Those with messy histories are easier to marginalize, especially those with political agendas to right things that happened not on American soil but elsewhere, on those incomprehensible World War I-era killing fields.
Belonging and not belongings are truly irrelevant in the context of the billions of years of history, the billions that have come and gone, the millions of civilizations and people that have risen and fallen, the languages spoken and forgotten, the nations and kingdoms created and erased.
Yet within this irrelevancy is that reality that humans want to belong to their family, their community, their nation. We try to fit in. We try to belong and adapt to others’ terms of happiness and success.
In my irrelevant lifetime, as one speck of dust in the wind, I had tried so hard to succeed, to belong, to fit in. In Fresno ten years ago, I hadn’t felt at peace living in my own skin.
My new two-story house, my new cloths from Macy’s, my blue contact lenses, nifty haircut, new car, and my cool job being a TV reporter explaining county fairs and drive-by shootings wasn’t cutting it.
I had it all but wanted more. I wanted something else. I had tried to belong to my society and to fit in through a career at the core of our popular culture. I had tried to belong to an industry that thrives on exclusion and the marginalization of the masses.
It hadn’t worked. I had used the wrong words. I had had the wrong news values. I picked the wrong stories to tell. I cared about civil wars and human rights, and my peers wanted to talk about car shows and sports teams.
I felt I had to leave and find a place where I could feel I was the same as others, so I put all my chips on an Armenian broadcaster. And I lost.
Now I realize that it was me casting me off the island and not the other natives casting me off. I should have changed my attitude about being different and just continued. I should have been grateful ten years ago, held on to my job and my house, and tried harder to contribute to the bounty of the US.
I should have divorced myself from my newsroom critics’ opinions and held on tighter to my viewpoints, my multi-cultural and global outlook. I should have challenged the beliefs of the over-confident, myopic, delusionally omnipotent, homogeneous news people in Fresno.
This was my home too, my place, my Target, my Walmart, my mall, and I hadn’t counted my blessings then.
This may have been a personal journey of wanting more when everything I wanted was here already. And the journey brought with it a lesson that we must embrace our blessings and make the best of the opportunities we have rather than long for things we don’t have.
Why should we have to be all the same? Why can’t we all be different in our own unique way? Why are some opinions right and others wrong? Didn’t multiple viewpoints make this country what it is today? Didn’t multi-culturism and diversity contribute to our well-being?
And where had my unfathomable sense of responsibility and connections to global events come from? Why did I think differently than those I worked with? Why did I think x,y, and z were more important than their a,b, and c? Why wasn’t there room for both sets of letters? Why did I have a connection to an ancestral homeland, that place a lot of people wanted to leave? Why did I think I could belong there? Why did thoughts of a trip to Armenia, or even a new trip now, make me giddy?
Was this connection something my parents trained me to have? Were years of being told not to speak English making me long for being normal like our American neighbors or the kids at school? Were these connections to a far-away historic Homeland — a place my ancestors weren’t actually from — something my ego used to make me feel more special that the millions of others who enjoy the malls of America?
Did being Armenian or connecting to the Homeland give me a sense of purpose beyond those of the people I used to work with in the television stations of the US? Were all these thoughts of identity and feeling marginalized in the US or in the Homeland tricks my mind was playing on me or were there more substantial, spiritual drives about our identity, connections to our historic people, and the survival of our culture? And why hadn’t I pushed to have the things gifted to me by my identity benefit my community in the States?
I understand exactly why people want what I have at home in the States, but why do I long to travel for 24-hours straight in metallic tubes to go to this other place? Why do I want to be humiliated barefoot, holding my shoes, with my laptop out of my backpack and keyboard exposed, having strangers dig through my blood pressure and ulcer medications, making me feel like a criminal just because I want to go to that other place?
Why do I want to go to this other place to be confronted by dozens of cabbies who accost you before you can even step out of the airport? Why do I want to be stared at in restaurants or stared down on sidewalks? Why do I want to be on streets where cars don’t give pedestrians the right of way, where waitresses could really care less, and where the only answer to questions in stores or offices is ‘che kiddem’ (I don’t know).
Maybe why we make these trips is because in that other place we find something we can’t buy at Target or in our malls – belonging. Maybe because once we get to that other place, we stare at the mountains and get reoriented. Maybe when we are there, we are among others who are just like us. Maybe there, our names aren’t strange and our faces aren’t awkward. Maybe there, they know the songs I know and eat the foods I eat.
But then when we’re in that other place, we long for our perfectly groomed lawns in well-planned neighborhoods, nicely paved streets and highways that take you to the Disneylands of commerce within a few minutes.
You see, we have the best of both worlds. Home and the Homeland. That place over there, where we are one and the same, and this place here that can benefit from the insights of the global perspectives of immigrants.
And three apples fell from heaven in a mall near you: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.