Letter home: A Diaspora discovers Armenia and “Armenianness”

When I discovered AGBU’s Yerevan Summer Internship Program, I immediately applied hoping to have the opportunity to challenge myself by learning to adapt and interact with another culture apart from the confines of my own.

Seems I slightly overestimated my skills of acculturation. Notably, I was not prepared for the Armenian male response to a female – any female – on the streets. But, I suppose its best to seize these types of occurrences as learning opportunities and accept the cultural norms for what they are.

With that in mind, I realize how much I actually love this country.

Despite the cultural differences, I feel a sensational rush of passion from seeing something as simple as a group of Armenian children playing soccer in the middle of the street where I live, which strikes me as a dangerous practice considering the way the cab drivers operate their vehicles on the road, never looking right or left before they cross the street or not even bothering to stop before they turn.

Regardless, I still feel a strange connection to this place that is slightly familiar, but: When I came to Armenia four years ago, I had cultivated this mentality that is common among the Diaspora, thinking I was going to find my roots and have this mysterious, metaphysical experience with the homeland of my ancestors.

But now, having overcome that rather amateur and naïve mindset, I am eager to develop a new perspective. I have no doubt that this perception will be richer than my first in that I have overcome that romanticized idea. Evolution has replaced romanticism. Even the physical terrain is not the same, much less the social and political facets. Much like the inhabitants of the city, the region changes and grows, and it continues to do so to this day.

Upon landing, I did not even recognize the Zvartnots airport. And right then I knew that although I felt so good to be back, things were not the same and my experience was going to be very different than before.

Now, as opposed to searching for some fantasized ancestry, I am focusing more on adapting to the actual culture of this city and seeing if I can find myself within it, instead of finding it in me. I walk to and from work and take the marshrutka (minibus), and I make an effort to change my pronunciation to better suit that of the Eastern Armenian dialect. For me, that is what it takes in order to truly feel that I have tasted a new environment. I observe the people around me and follow their lead, very careful and conscious of seeming arrogant or ignorant, as the reputation of my nationality upholds. Understandably, five weeks is not nearly enough time to thoroughly assimilate, but for me the importance lies within the actual effort of adjusting my ideologies and being able to shift my paradigms, be it only for such a short period of time.

So for now, I will continue to take it one day at a time, feeling humbled by the locals here and learning from even the slightest occurrences during my stay. I know that these next few weeks will fly and disappear right before my eyes—it already feels like I am running on vapors here—and although I know that it will feel so wrong leaving, I am determined to have an enriching experience that will leave me feeling like it was the right one for me.

Danielle Hartounian, 19, is a student at Orange Coast College, in Southern California, where she majors in English and minors in studio arts. She is a participant of the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Yerevan Summer Internship Program, during which she is interning at ArmeniaNow.com.