Letter Home: A Diaspora discovers Armenia and “Armenianness”

Before I left for Yerevan, friends and family inevitably asked me, “Why are you going to Armenia?” My answer? It wasn’t to visit my family—any family members I have in Armenia are either unknown to me or nonexistent. Nor was it to discover my true homeland—while Armenia remains the land of my ancestors and its past and future are important to me, I have no illusion of truly belonging here and returning to the “land of my people.” My Armenian language skills are subpar to say the least, and my knowledge of current issues and affairs in Armenia is also deficient. Then, why was I making this journey halfway around the world to a country I knew little about and in which I knew no one?

Because I am Armenian? I ask this instead of stating it because it seems to depend on to whom, and where, you ask this question. It did not take long for some of my pre-arrival assumptions about what Yerevan would be like to be shattered. I emerged from Zvartnots airport—small, but efficient—and took the short and smooth highway trip to the center of Yerevan, passing through Republic Square and watching the musical fountain show. The beauty of the city with its tree-lined streets, grand center, and beautiful landscape immediately struck me and diminished some of my anxiety about living in this city for eight weeks. But that was only day one.

On my first full day in Yerevan, I explored much of the city with the other interns from the Armenian Assembly of America, accompanied by our director who guided us and mediated our experience of Yerevan. And then he left. We were on our own—and after attempting, unsuccessfully, to bargain in the market, find out about purchasing a cell phone, and navigate to my apartment by myself, I started to doubt how much my being Armenian would actually make living in this foreign city easier. Actually, after an encounter with a Yerevan youth that evening, where my fellow interns and I were subtly mocked in Armenian while watching the fountain show at Republic Square, and made to feel quite unwelcome, I started to think that my being an Armenian-American tourist in Yerevan might actually make life here more difficult.

The relations between the Diaspora and Armenia have been complicated. With ancestors who were forced into exile or fled the horrors of the Genocide, diasporan Armenians are now almost a century removed from quotidian Armenian affairs. Established all over the world, with large communities in Los Angeles (Little Armenia), Paris, and elsewhere, diasporan Armenians retain their Armenian identity and solidarity while striving to adapt and succeed in their new environments. Some look forward to an eventual return, but many are content to remain in their new countries of residence.

However, the growing distance between diasporan and local Armenians seems to be accompanied by increased resentment and frustration. I was immediately surprised in my first encounters in Yerevan to be met not with the warm hospitality that is so characteristic of Armenian culture, but with less-than-open arms and a hint of hostility that made me question how welcome I was in this city.

I do not mean to imply that all of my interactions were negative, only that I was caught off guard, and started to feel self-conscious, and doubtful of the legitimacy of my presence here. Whereas I thought my limited ability to speak and read Armenian would be to my advantage, I felt it was worse to err in my attempts to communicate in the language of the city; instead I found it easier to give up and conduct myself as though I had no understanding of the language so that I would not meet with the rolled eyes and sighs forced by my broken Armenian.

In some ways, such a welcoming—or, rather, an unwelcoming—is to my advantage. Knowing the impression that Armenian tourists give to local Armenians in Yerevan, I can challenge these stereotypes by being more open, willing to listen, and humble in my assumptions about my role in Armenian affairs. However, I can do so while also standing up for my right to be here against the gruffness of my reception into the city, if only as a tourist who just happens to be Armenian. Unlike non-Armenian tourists who are none the wiser when they are snubbed or mocked in Armenian, those visitors to Yerevan who have some capacity to understand the language are ultimately at an advantage for at least knowing where they stand with the locals, and hopefully this knowledge can be productive and force a renegotiation and re-conceptualization of the relationship between diasporan and local Armenians so that we can expose misconceptions and learn from each other rather than acting on our prejudices and stereotypes to disparage one another.

Elizabeth, 22, is studying anthropology at Columbia University in New York City, her home. She is in Armenia as part of the Armenian Assembly of America internship program. She is first generation Armenian-American. Her immediate family stems from Bulgaria, where her grandparents were moved following the Armenian Genocide.