BY MEGHEDI MELODY NAZARIAN
Any Diasporan who has been to Armenia has undoubtedly picked up on how different kids that are born and raised in Armenia are from children raised outside the Motherland. At first, you notice young kids out and about on the streets of Yerevan past 10 p.m. — considered way past their bedtimes in America. Then you see young children taking the bus and when you look around, you don’t always notice a parent or grandparent nearby. You may come across a youngun sitting at a restaurant (sans high chair) with a handful of adults and no Crayons in sight. You might even hear this little one contributing to the adult conversation and the only thing that gives away their age is their squeaky voice — not the mastery of their Armenian language or eloquence of their thoughts.
The first time my ears perked up at a kid in Armenia was when I heard my cousin’s 6-year-old son Varouj yell “araaaaa” — his index finger and thumb pointed up for dramatic effect — at his dad when he was being scolded for bad behavior. All the while, he was sitting on my cousin’s lap as they drove us around Yerevan. I couldn’t quite process what was happening in front of me. I didn’t know what was more strange: that a 6-year-old was “driving” or that he was yelling at his dad like an angsty teenager. I’m well past six and I still don’t dare raise my voice at my dad — and I’m pretty sure my dad would have gone to jail if he let me drive at six in America!
That same Summer that I visited Armenia in 2015, I witnessed the same kid, Varouj, playing with matches. While my aunt (his grandma) didn’t flinch, I, the only American around for miles, had the look of horror in my eyes, like I was strapped in to ride the scariest rollercoaster of my life. I ran to him to confiscate the matches, while simultaneously envisioning my aunt’s house in North Marash going up in flames. You can probably guess what little Varouj yelled when he realized my plan. I looked to my aunt, who gave me the “it’s ok, let him be a kid” look so I backed off and said a little silent prayer in my head. All I kept thinking was, there’s no way this scene would fly in America. It’s not that my aunt is careless, but in Armenia, the idea of letting a kid be a kid is far different than it is in America. In some aspects, kids in Armenia are treated like adults, and in other ways, they’re free to be kids. In America, kids play with iPhones. In Armenia, they still play with sticks and stones. In America, kids have their own kids’ table separate from the adults. In Armenia, kids sit and chat with the adults. In America, kids are asked to put on proverbial earmuffs when their parents swear. In Armenia, adults don’t censor their words for kids; it’s not uncommon to hear little boys using profanities on the streets. In America, kids have strict bedtimes and nap schedules and scheduled play dates. In Armenia, bedtimes are flexible, napping is optional, and play dates are with the neighbors’ kids. In America, kids need 24/7 chaperones, while in Armenia kids can roam free.
Being born and raised in America, I — and many other diasporans — have had a sheltered, comfortable upbringing that has shielded us from much of the real world. Many of our parents faced adversity and struggled so that we didn’t even have to see a hint of it. I used to think that was the better way, but after seeing the kids in Armenia, I realized that there is something so real, so raw about being exposed to real life, and the truth and pain that comes with it. It makes you a stronger individual, it builds personality and character, and it teaches you how to handle hardships without cracking under pressure.
When I visited Gyumri in 1991 when I was eight years old, I remember playing in the earthquake rubble with kids around my age, but there was always this sense of them being older and wiser beyond their years. My eyes revealed naiveté, while theirs showed hustle. They were kids on the outside, but having had a hard life and having gone through a devastating earthquake just three years prior, their insides had grown up much faster. It wasn’t surprising to me when I found out years later that the girls I had befriended in 1991 had all gotten married and had kids even before I had my first boyfriend.
Besides the struggles kids in Armenia have been exposed to at an early age, there’s something to be said about growing up in your Motherland. There is a sense of home and a lack of worry that a child is going to be kidnapped at the mall or on the streets. There is a quiet understanding that you’re dealing with your kind. Your local grocer is like your uncle and the old lady that sells fruit has become like a second grandma. There is a comfort in being around those cut from the same cloth. Kids in Armenia are asked to do “adult” things like run to the market or take the bus alone after school because there isn’t a fear that they won’t come back home.
I wasn’t in Armenia during the recent Velvet Revolution, but seeing the photos of little kids on their parents’ shoulders at the protests reminded me all over again of the resilience and brilliance of kids in Armenia. All the little Anas and Gurgens and Lilits and Davits that took to the streets proudly holding up signs and the Armenian flag contributed to a legendary moment in their country’s history just as much as the grownups. How do you go back to watching cartoons after that?