BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
It was an extremely hot holiday weekend, the last one for the summer and most people headed out of town to squeeze the last drops of the season’s freedom before school and work schedules kicked in. The next break, deep into the fall season, would not include forays into salt waters.
Fire seemed to be rain in the inland areas of the city as we headed out of town, like everyone else, to enjoy the cooler breezes off the Pacific Ocean. Our destination was a small beach town in an enclave of Southern California approached by a two lane highway through the mountains. It’s safe to call it a small town even though the homes, considered luxurious by beach culture standards, extend far up into the hills surrounding it. The downtown area is small and very manageable by foot and everyone, locals and tourists alike, seemed to be out for a stroll as we drove into town.
We soon joined the crowds to explore the town made up of mostly restaurants and boutiques, many of them selling products geared towards the beach culture outside their doors. Quite a few people were clad in wet bathing suits and draped in damp towels with sand encrusted feet.
Way past lunchtime we ducked into a restaurant; an old, converted lumberyard with soaring wood ceilings, white tablecloths, glittering glassware and a vast bar where several clusters of people were already dining. The hum of conversation and laughter floated through the cavernous but cozy space. Immediately the hostess, a young, beautiful woman of about 25 years of age, approached us and helped us get seated at the wraparound bar.
Paco made the meanest dirty martini and, with his personable and easy chatter, happily served us a couple of them in relatively quick succession. “We are on vacation after all,” we said as we toasted with our glasses.
Looking around the upscale restaurant the clientele looked fairly homogenous and reflected the affluent population of the town: couples in their mid forties to sixties, Caucasian, with an occasional child or grandchild were seated at tables in the restaurant during the late afternoon before the evening’s dinner rush.
As other patrons walked in, the same genial hostess quickly approached and seated them at their desired table. Then a family entered who was unique: a couple in their late thirties accompanied by a younger man carrying a 4 year old child with closely cropped hair. They stood by the bar close to the entrance waiting for service. A few minutes later another older couple entered and was immediately seated. The small family was still rooted in the same spot at the head of the bar. Paco served the newly arrived couple their drinks immediately and did not seem to notice the little cluster of people in his direct line of sight waiting to be spoken to. The hostess was too preoccupied at her station by the door a mere four feet away.
The three adults and child waited patiently, silently surveying their surroundings. They never uttered a word to anyone, including each other. Possibly the difference in the treatment they received, versus everyone else present, was that this family was Hispanic. Although well mannered, dressed like everyone else, meticulously groomed and well mannered, they clearly stood out amongst the other diners. Watching them wait patiently, it was not clear if they were aware of the treatment they were receiving or even if they understood its’ significance. Eventually the woman leaned up to the man next to her to say a few words. They both laughed then returned to their stoic demeanors. A few minutes later she turned and headed directly to the hostess to ask for a table. They were immediately led to a table adjacent to the bar, away from the main dining room with its stark white tablecloths laden with silverware and wineglasses and served by bow tied waiters.
Having immigrated to this country as a child during the early part of the boom experience by the Armenian community, treatment such as the one I was observing was rare in my experience. Or perhaps my young mind did not comprehend it when it did occur. Regardless, over the years it all faded into the background and one rarely heard stories of racism directed towards Armenians. Until one day, a high school teacher told a story of her experience from the days of her youth while trying to make a point during a class lecture. She was born and raised in Fresno, the oldest and most established Armenian community in California, and was well in her late fifties at the time: an age as ancient as the sages for a young teenager. The details of the lecture or the story have faded from my memory but what still burns vividly is her description of the signs prominently displayed in the shop windows : “No dogs or Armenians allowed.”
Due to our genetic make-up, it is easy for most Armenians to mix into the general American or European cultures in which they find themselves. In our attempt to claim our Caucasian roots, blend in with our hairstyles and fashion, adopting less ethnic sounding names because “it’s easier for odars (non Armenians) to pronounce” or because “it’s too long to spell” emphasizes the notion that we have won the battle against racism not because we stood strong, but because we accommodated. Now, many Armenians practice the same sort of divisive and belittling behavior against others who they deem beneath them; namely those who are non-Caucasian.
Watching the family standing in the restaurant, visions of what our parents or grandparents experienced in this very same city became more and more clear as my teacher’s words morphed from a long ago anecdote into reality. My heart sank at the thought of the present day actions I’d observed over the years of my brethren behaving in this very same manner.
Many religions and philosophies expound on the idea of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is a very important lesson for a people who have been persecuted and vilified throughout the course of history. Armenians have learned to adapt in any corner of the world in which they find themselves by adopting local customs and behaviors. But we must bear in mind that our most valuable treasure is our and our ancestor’s experiences. Let’s adopt what is good in our new homes but abandon the negative. If nothing else, our denigrating experiences must make us more compassionate towards others who are where we used to be.