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.


  1. when i read your post i felt happiness and sadness at the same time, as i could relate to most of the feelings and wonderings that you were expressing. Happiness coming from a sense of closure of arrival to somewhere where you can finally rest for a second, thinking this is it, this is what you were looking for... but sadness as well because of the on-going feeling of still not belonging to anywhere and realizing it while attaining this kind of closure...i don't know if you understand what i mean, it is a little late and my thoughts seem not very clear:)

  2. I think I know what you mean, Lara jan ;) It's kind of ironic, isn't it, the simultaneous feeling of coming home while still not feeling like I belong.

    I came across Anastasia's blog "Furthering the Worldwide Cultural Conversation" and I've been able to relate to the issues she raises (hybrid identities, fluidity) and maybe, just maybe, coming home means not belonging to a certain extent. That is the perpetual feeling anywhere and it becomes comfortable, like wearing a second skin. Have you read Pico Iyer's work? I can't recall where I've read up on this topic, but I think he's written about it to a certain extent. In any case, I find it reassuring to connect with and read others who feel the same way :)

  3. You have managed to express so eloquently many of the thoughts I've had in my own head, especially this:

    "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."

    I'm almost embarrassed to say, that I've never been to Armenia. It's been calling out to me for so long, but the timing never felt right. I don't think I will feel that "I belong" when I arrive, I never have a constant feeling of "belonging" when I'm in Los Angeles either. I guess that's the effect of multiple identities and being Armenian. We are all floating, longing to belong. But the journey is beautiful, so I don't mind. It was nice to read your perspective, I really enjoyed it

  4. Thanks, Liana jan! Apologies for the late reply, I haven't been up-to-date on my blog lately ;( I enjoy reading you too (both your personal and professional blog and online personas ;) I'm sure there are many of us who feel the same way. And if you do decide to come to Armenia, know that you have friends here and many who live with the effect of multiple identities :)

  5. There are moments when I feel i belong when i am in armenia and moments when i dont at all. The latter is usually when someone tells me ''why are you here?, canada is amazing this is a shit country...''. Before visitng for the first time, I was simply escaping home and obligations not caring where I end up. I didnt feel armenian at all and didnt even relate a tad bit to the visual landscapes I saw in touristic books.. In the airplane I looked at the geographic maps with regional names like ''lori, meghri'' and that is when i started getting excited and understanding this was gonna be a very important trip... The moment I landed i think my legs felt weak it was REALLY creepy to feel ''you are in armenia- the land of armenians'' and seeing for the first time in the airport VISA (written in armenian)... its enough to make ya wanna stay for a long time.

  6. @Anonymous, I know what you mean. For some of us, coming to Armenia could mean escaping something from the country we left; for others, it can mean coming home. And as you rightly pointed out, sometimes it can even be a bit of both ;)

  7. This post caught my attention after you commented on my blog post about 'half-life' -- or being divided, almost distanced from what's going on in the moment.

    You say "unable to express myself fully in Armenian, though I speak the language" and that seems to describe what I feel to a certain degree when I'm back home. It happens both in Turkey and the US, though. I've found expressing myself is most natural in the work I do, things I make. Thankfully there are ways to communicate beyond language.

  8. I agree. Thanks, Rose, for stopping by and for retweeting this post!

    And yes, it's great that there are ways to communicate other than language ;)