Friday, March 12, 2010

Why are you in Armenia?

I know a few expats and even more repats in Armenia, but I think I might be the only queer repat or expat who’s here to be with the person she loves. There are at least a few men from the US (often who came initially as volunteers with the Peace Corps), not to mention others, who came to Armenia, met an Armenian woman, got married, and stayed (and in some cases had kids). Not an unfamiliar story.

There are a number of Diasporan Armenians who are not from here, who have repatriated. They’re not expats, they’re repats, because their ethnicity is that of the dominant majority: they (we) are Armenian. Or as Merriam-Webster defines it, to repatriate is “to restore or return to the country of origin allegiance, or citizenship.”

Some of us repats speak Armenian, some don’t. Some of us speak the Western dialect, some of us the Eastern dialect (that which is spoken more commonly in Armenia). Some of us are here on a one-year program funded by grants, some of us have started businesses or created NGOs and charities, sometimes from the ground up. Some (like me) got here, then looked for work to earn an income (it helps, though, if you prepare in advance).

There are also those of us who are half-Armenian or a quarter-Armenian (if we want to play the numbers game) who are here discovering our roots or at least experiencing first-hand the country that we have read about, heard about and — perhaps — dreamed about. I don’t consider myself part of this group. Not simply because both of my parents are Armenian, but because I have family here, I’ve been here before, and I never really held this idolized image of a “homeland.”

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, where I went to an Armenian private school for the first 12 years of my life. I was rooted in my community, while feeling that I unable to fully express myself in what I considered to be (and still do) a closed-off, conservative Diasporan community.

Then I went to Catholic school and from that point on, most of my friends were not Armenian and I found myself going to events in the Armenian community less and less (to my father’s chagrin). All the same, I never felt like I belonged in either the Armenian community or the dominant majority culture in Canada. But what does it mean to belong anyway? Might “belonging” not be a fluid experience, changing in different communities, in different spaces, in different countries?

In Armenia, I can’t say that I feel like I belong. I am here; I live here. But I find myself unable to express myself fully in Armenian, though I speak the language. And I’ve realized that language, too, is not simply knowing words or even the meaning of words. Language is a gateway: to culture, to a way of seeing the world, to an approach (This reminds me of a recent post by fellow repat Raffi Niziblian). And I have an English-language approach. I think and read and write more in English, I problem solve in English, I analyze in English. But the truth is, I feel in Armenian. And that is why I could never reconcile myself in English whilst in Canada. I can express myself logically, with words, to someone in English. But they will not fully understand what I mean, or rather, what I feel, because for me, that is in Armenian.

So what else is new? It is the experience of the hyphenated Canadian (in my case), the Diasporan, the immigrant, or the expat/repat all over the world. Fellow blogger Anastasia M. Ashman, in her blog “Furthering the Worldwide Cultural Conversation,” asks good questions about the “hybrid self” and the “hybrid life” here and on fluidity here.

But the funny thing is (or maybe it’s not so funny, maybe it’s the most logical thing in the world), I find myself able to relate more to the expats in Armenia, that is, those who are not Armenian, who might never have even heard of Armenia before coming here, but who came and fell in love and stayed, than the repats, the Diasporan Armenians who chose to come here, who came with their partners or came solo, who came to do good work, or just to see what living in the “homeland” is like.

Though I told my grandmother before she passed away that I would like to live in Armenia for year (long before I met my partner), it wasn’t because I was searching for home or longing for culture. I don’t know why I said that. Perhaps I wanted to live in a country where I heard and spoke in Armenian all the time, where it wasn’t compartmentalized to one part of my life (speaking it at home with my family, for instance).

Perhaps I just wanted to experience the adventure of living abroad for a year (an experience I had afterwards, but in Europe). Perhaps I told her I wanted to live here because it would be something she might be proud of, seeing as I was yet unmarried and childless — life stages I should have already reached (“accomplished”) by my age, something she could be proud of.

I don’t know why I said it, but I know that I meant it at the time. And living here became a reality when I made the move last year not only because I met the love of my life, but also because I met amazing women, artists, activists, and a lively LGBT community (though perhaps few would use such terms, or even identify themselves as belonging to “the community”). I wanted to come here to work with them, to create art with them, to create change through art. I could see the possibilities during my brief stay here, and yes, I felt a sense of community.

And maybe, just maybe it felt a little like coming home.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Top 10 New Favourite Blogs

None of these blogs are new per se, but some of them I only came across yesterday (hence, they’re new to me). Others I’ve been following for some time (like Unzipped).

I wonder, where do these bloggers have the time to write? None of them (as far as I know) make their living from blogging. And yet they put together well-thought-out, insightful, engaging stories (not to mention photographs and videos) on a regular basis.

I have complete respect for these writers and analysts (for they are analysts even if they may not say so themselves), artists, activists, journalists, moms, and cultural workers.

Here they are (in no particular order):

Jonathan Makiri, American living in Istanbul. Currently in Yerevan. Beautiful photographs. See what he sees.

Tom Allen, English cyclist and web guru living in Yerevan with his Armenian wife from Tehran, Iran. His first solo exhibit featuring photographs from touring (by bicycle, naturally) in the Middle East and North Africa opens at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (ACCEA, or NPAK in Armenian) in Yerevan tomorrow.

Dividing My time: Finding the Funnier Side of Life in Russia
Jennifer Eremeeva. American expat living in Moscow. I think the title says it all :)

Scary Azeri in the Suburbs
Mom from Baku, Azerbaijan, now living in the UK. I love her writing, and how accessible it is.

Arzu Geybullayeva. Young blogger, and social and political activist from Baku, Azerbaijan. Lived in the States for a year and has studied in Turkey and in the UK. Returned to Baku, where she works with the European Stability Initiative. Interests include conflict resolution (she writes extensively on conflicts in the South Caucasus), gender studies, and sustainable development.

Art Mika. Gay Armenian man from Armenia currently living and working in the UK. I live in Yerevan, but somehow he seems to know more about what’s going on in my city than I do :) A trusted source on just about everything gay and Armenian (not to mention the Eurovision Song Contest :)

Anastasia Ashman (aka Thandelike). US expat living in Istanbul. “Furthering the worldwide cultural conversation: Raising the feminine voice on issues of culture and history, self improvement and the struggle for identity — in one family to entire hemispheres.”

“Love, Rose”
Rose Deniz. American expat living in Turkey. Art is Dialogue curator. Writes about identity, mothering, hybrid lives, art. Just came across her blog yesterday and even though I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, I want to read more about what this writer and illustrator has to say.

“Whatever you are be a good one”
Arpiné Grigoryan. Armenian living in Armenia (can you believe it? Not an expat :) I relate very much to what she writes about, which is simply the day-to-day of living here, in Yerevan and in this life.

"Motherhood, Repatriation and other fictions" (I love the title.)
Lara Aharonian. Expat mother of three from Montreal, Canada (but Beirut, Lebanon, before that), living in Yerevan. The title says it all (side note: Lara is a friend of mine.)

And there you have it. Yes, there are many expats and yes, there’s a focus on the region (Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia). However, if you’re reading this (and if you read my blog, in general), I think you might be interested in what these bloggers have to say.

And if you’re a blogger writing about similar topics, drop me a line, introduce yourself. I’d love to read you :)

P.S. The idea for this blog came from here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Organic Evolution: From CouchSurfing to Blogging to Twitter

A little over 5 years ago, I was living in Amsterdam and travelling in the Baltic states. I used the online service/community site CouchSurfing and was able to secure places to stay by generous people who I met online and then in person.

I was amazed (and still am) by the kindness of strangers.

The first person I ever stayed with was M. in Tallinn, Estonia. I was her first CouchSurfing guest and she was my first CouchSurfing host (not counting the person I stayed with in Berlin, who I had met through friends in Amsterdam). My brief stay in her small apartment, meeting her friends, drinking good coffee at the chain of cafés she worked at, and eating vegetarian food at the local Hare Krishna restaurant are memories that have stayed with me over the years.

Fast forward 5 years.

I, a Canadian of Armenian descent, have moved to Yerevan, Armenia. On a whim, I contact M. (whose number or email I do not have) through CouchSurfing. She writes back! I find out she’s working for an EU organization, while working on a Master’s degree. I tell her I’ve moved to Yerevan, where I’m living with my partner and trying to eek out a living. She sends me her Skype account details. I send her mine.

A couple of days ago, she calls me on Skype. And I have a chance to speak to an old friend who I have neither seen nor been in contact with for 5 years... the conversation is brief as we both have to return to work, but it is reassuring, comforting. I am so happy to hear her voice.

She tells me there’s been progress: she’s now living in an apartment that has hot water and a washing machine (luxury items she didn’t have in the apartment she was renting, and in which I stayed, over 5 years ago). I remember sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the middle of a not-too-too-cold Estonian winter. I remember her greeting me at the airport, getting to her apartment, tired and hungry, and her offering to make me crêpes for dinner! (Before then, I had considered crêpes to be an exclusively breakfast food item :)

That day (though it was evening when I arrived) was probably the start of my trust in the universe. Of trusting in serendipity. CouchSurfing in a way led me to Friendster which led me to Facebook, then blogging, then Twitter. The organic evolution of using online networks, social media, and the resources available on the world wide web to effect change in real life — whether that be a small change in my own life, or a larger change, impacting more people, across borders and boundaries.

And yes, the kindness of strangers.

Thank you, M. If I didn’t say so then, those crêpes were yummy!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not really a day off, but...

Today, I worked from home. A simple text message to my colleague in the morning: “I need to work from home.” And work I did; in fact, I think I am more efficient, less stressed, and generally more content with my day if I don’t go into the room we call our office (see earlier post).

It also gave me an opportunity to eat warm food (thanks to the opportunity to heat food which exists at home, but not at work), to stare out the window occasionally, and catch up on some much-needed reading of fellow bloggers’ posts.

Reading other people’s writing inspires me. (This reminds me of a post by one of my favourite bloggers, Arzu Geybulla, who writes on her personal blog, Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines.)

And when you work long hours at an unfulfilling job, it can be difficult sometimes to get inspired and motivated to write... hell, it becomes difficult to just gather your thoughts even, in order to form coherent sentences that someone might actually want to read.

Today was a day full of ideas. And positive energy. And both of these things I hope to take with me when I go to the Social Media for Social Change conference in Tbilisi in April, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Drop me a line if you’re reading this post and will be there too. Interesting things always happen at crossroads...