BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
At 6’7”, Joe is an extremely tall man with freckled skin and light brown hair. Born and raised in Wisconsin, his height and his features were a match for the mostly Scandinavian immigrants who had settled in that part of the country over a hundred years ago.
Almost two decades ago, upon first meeting Joe, his warm and friendly personality had instantly turned a stranger into a friend and he’d maintained the connection throughout the years.
“Do I look Armenian?” he asked during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where he used to reside. “What are the features? Do I have the hair? The eyes?” he let out a barrage of questions. Was this a hypothetical question? Was he raising a deeper question of identity being attached to physical features?
“Why do you ask?
“I think I’m Armenian,” he replied simply then waiting to see my reaction.
“You have the big almond eyes,” I said, going along with what I thought was a game, knowing that he was of 100% Norwegian descent.
“So how is it that you are Armenian?” I asked, still humoring him.
“I think my dad was,” he said.
“What? How is that possible?”
“It’s not something you can really make up,” he said with a laugh, “kind of a bizarre name to use in 1921 in Wisconsin.”
It seems that after his father passed away there was some confusing about his birth papers since he was adopted. Although his father, dark haired and olive skinned, knew he was adopted and referred to it many times over the years, no one knew his ancestry. Joe decides to find out and contacted St. Joseph’s orphanage in Milwaukee only to be told be a kindly woman that everything from the records department was destroyed in a fire in the 1930’s. A week later, after Joe had already decided to give up the search, the woman from the records department called him to say that while discussing his father’s name with somebody else a third person had overheard and interjected with some information. “Seems there was this old nun that remembered my dad and she took her right to the paper. She knew exactly where the papers were, which is really bizarre. They weren’t destroyed in the fire. Now I don’t know who this lady was or where she came from, but it was the most bizarre thing I had ever heard in my life. It reminded me of Freddie Kruger [an iconic character of the horror film Nightmare on Elm Street],” he said, referring to similarities in the story line of an old nun who suddenly appears and tells the back story of the main character.
“She sends me a copy of the birth certificate and that’s when I saw who the adoptive parents were. My grandmother’s name was Garnet Johnson. I don’t know what that means in Wisconsin because it’s not a common Scandinavian name.”
“And your grandfather?” I asked while sitting on the edge of my seat.
“And you found this out after he passed away?”
“When you found out he was Armenian, did it change your perception of him?”
“It changed my perception of me – not him. I just thought it was a little but more flavorful, interesting, exotic. I guess in a cookie cutter world that we live in, having some sort of colorful background is more interesting.”
Joe is one amongst three brothers and one sister. “We were always the ones who stood out because we were so dark. I’m very light skinned considering the rest of my family. So this information helped make sense of that.” Their father’s heritage had been an obscure subject throughout the sibling’s lives and now interested all of them.
“Did it change any of them?” I asked, hoping for a story of long lost sheep returning to the herd.
“I don’t think so.”
“Has it changed you?” I asked, again hoping for a
“I think I like ethnic food a little bit more now,” he said and laughed at the ridiculousness of his own statement.
Although this information hasn’t awoken any latent nationalistic feelings, it has prompted Joe to do some cursory research. “I don’t know if I’m going to get ready to walk around with an Armenian flag, but I pay more attention to the sub-culture.”
“How do you feel about all this?
“I’m alright with it. Everybody in Wisconsin is white – homogenized, Scandinavian – and that’s what I grew up in and that all I’ve ever experienced.” He describes the adoptive parents as “mid-west, middle class” who just wanted a child. “I don’t know whether adopting a child from a different ethnic background is what they strived for but I’m not so sure if they would be willing to adopt him knowing that he was outside the classic white race.”
The irony is that Joe’s father did not know of his heritage and had no desire to find out but Joe finds that this knowledge has colored his world “To have a 100 percent Norwegian on one side, and zero on the other side, and then to dig in and find something else, it adds an element to who you are. It’s a very interesting experience.”