In Gyumri – In Search

Stepan Keshishian
(Boston, MA, USA)

During few months I spent in Armenia this summer, I thought a lot about the different challenges we Diasporan Armenians face regarding our culture and identity. In many cases, it’s extremely difficult to retain your native culture in a foreign environment, especially if you live in an area with a less vibrant Armenian community, in which case you are forced to actively work toward retaining and developing ties with your homeland and culture.

I’ve wondered a lot about this issue without coming to any sort of final or decisive conclusion. Say, for example, there are two separate realities or cultures that you consider yourself to be a part of; your Armenian reality and, for example, your American reality. Without getting too deep into the particular subcultures within each, let’s try to envision your relationship with each. Is it a case of being able to only contain a certain amount of “culture” or a set amount of “reality”, or is it a case of limitless acquisition? In other words, is your life a glass that can be filled only as much as it can hold, or are humans able to attain and retain an endless amount of “culture”?

I lay here staring up into the ornate ceiling of this old Gyumri house, turning this question over and over in my head; my mind is suddenly sent back into some distant past, and the music suffocating my headphones brings back vivid memories of specific periods of time in my life—flashbacks from college life, or summers with old and forgotten friends, brothers. What was it that possessed me to listen to music that I hadn’t even touched since college? Was is possibly the fact of being displaced from an environment I was comfortable in that led me to grasp some sort of familiar comfort? In this case, it seems like more of an innate desire to bring up these old memories in order to subconsciously assess my reality. Perhaps forcing the memories and feelings associated with these different eras to confront one another will enable the ever-evolving mind to come to terms with itself and learn to coexist, as a collection of different memories, scattered emotions, opposing philosophies—a magnetic field of acquired sentiments, each fighting to outdo one another, all the while bringing the human spirit into a state of dormant anguish, ready to pounce at the first hint of surety, of confidence, of beauty—eruption; organized chaos.

Regardless, I’m left with the question of whether it is possible to incorporate these two (or more) realities with and throughout one another, or if the fact of different inherent cultural values and norms makes this concept of consolidated personalities impossible. For example, will the people closest to you in one of these spheres be understanding of your new life, or will they feel abandoned and eventually bitter toward you, despite any steps that may have been taken to explain the reasoning and progression of your thoughts.

Stemming from this topic, let’s look into the question of personal fulfillment within the issue itself. Seeing as there are different culturally accepted norms, values, and goals that are a product or a byproduct of these different realities, is it possible to achieve personal fulfillment in one sphere—having somewhat experienced but having not fully achieved fulfillment in the other—or will there always be a certain void in your personal satisfaction resulting from that longing and memory of incomplete experiences? As in, if you can experience even a fleeting moment of longing or nostalgia, or if you can recall some of the hopes and dreams that you once based your entire existence on in one of these past lives, does that longing and feeling of having left a part of yourself unfinished—a feeling that lurks in your shadow—suggest that you will never be able to find complete satisfaction in your current or eventual reality? Furthermore, will it eventually come to a point where you will have to decide between one reality and the other (Inaction is also a form of decision in this case)?

From where I stand now, from where we all stand, the outcome is difficult to foresee unless you have already graduated this thought process. One thing I’m certain of however is that, in order to put all our past, present, and future experiences toward something worthwhile and beneficial for the world, it is crucial to remain in constant movement, mentally speaking—to never allow your mind and thus your life to become stagnant, and to actively remain honest, modest, and eager with yourself. The moment we become stagnant in our thoughts is the moment we cease to evolve, to exist.

I’ve had so much trouble thinking how to even begin explaining my experiences in Armenia this summer with Birthright Armenia and AYF Youth Corps. I, like many of my fellow Diasporan Armenians, am a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors. I was born and raised in Boston, MA from parents who grew up in Lebanon and fled during the civil war. They were born in a time when thousands of Armenians who had survived the deportations and unspeakable events at Der Zor and throughout the Ottoman Empire had arrived in places like Syria and Lebanon; their parents and grandparents came from Marash and Adana—children of the Kingdom of Giligia, of Western Armenia, of Greater and Lesser Armenia, of our collective ancestral soil.

I grew up hearing stories, living through epics and fables—the stories, jokes, and inherent values of the Lebanese Armenian community. I had the privilege of attending Armenian school in Boston from age two through the eighth grade. I had the fortune of learning Armenian, not as a secondary or novel language, but as my mother tongue, alongside English. Although I wish I also grew up with the knowledge of Arabic, French, and Turkish like my parents had, I take a look at the world around me with extreme gratitude for the fact that I can think and feel in my ancestral language—not just as a collection of words and phrases, but as a binding communication to my soil and to my ancient history on this earth.

We unfortunately don’t have an Armenian high school in the area, and so my teenage years took me through a strangely amazing journey through the new world. I took on different personalities, different realities, and it wasn’t until my freshman year as a stereotypical American college student that something finally burst inside of me. The day my grandfather passed away was possibly the most vivid moment of my life. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat; I just found myself in a moment of clarity. I heard my grandfather’s words echoing through my soul, escaping through my throat. Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget where you come from. I looked back and I hated myself for having been such a spoiled and directionless child, running through life without the intuition and assuredness to know what I was looking for, to extract every bit of knowledge and value from my grandparents and my blood line. I became something new, something forgotten. I read books, did endless research, learned poetry, learned music; I began to see the world through my grandparents’ and parents’ eyes.

Shortly after in 2007, I visited Armenia for the first time with AYF Youth Corps. I came home to Boston and became involved with everything Armenian I could get my hands on; it was my obsession. Four years later, in the summer of 2011, I decided to participate in Youth Corps again between my transition from professional work to graduate school. I had heard about Birthright Armenia, and decided to add it onto my summer agenda as well, almost on a whim. The experiences I had during my first few weeks in Gyumri and throughout Armenia and Artsakh were like nothing I could’ve imagined or prepared for. Having spent so much working for the Armenian cause and nation in the diaspora, living in Armenia was a complete eye-opener. My host family was absolutely amazing; they instantly took me in as part of the family, and I sincerely consider them part of mine. I could spend hours explaining my host-family experience, and it wouldn’t be enough, so I’ll just give a brief snapshot: delicious breakfasts and dinners, homemade juices, yogurts, and sweets, watching movies and soap operas, going to family birthdays and events, watching the morning sun gleam off of Mount Aragats from the balcony, relaxing at their plot of land in Mayisian village and cooking khorovadz, finally meeting the eldest son on his day-off from the military, watching my host parents perform in the Kohar Symphony Orchestra with other Birthright Armenia volunteers, spending sleepless nights telling jokes, reciting poetry, and singing songs, and having a genuine home away from home at the end of the day.

One distinguishing aspect of the Birthright Armenia experience is having the opportunity to take part in the excursions. Every weekend, myself and the other Gyumri volunteers would take our bus to meet up with the Yerevan volunteer group, and head together to our destination. The bus ride, in itself, was always eventful, eccentric, and a great way to meet new people; and the excursions were truly unforgettable, in that they usually consisted of visiting places and doing activities that you would definitely not have a chance to experience as a tourist.

As you’ll hear from any Birthright Armenia volunteer, one of the most enriching aspects of the program is the sense of independence and self-sufficiency that you get to gain and explore during your time in Armenia—whether through riding the marshrutkas to and from work, attending forums and social events with other volunteers, or making local friends and building a social network. This is definitely a unique part of the program that enables you to naturally develop a strong connection to Armenia; By making new friends and family, establishing a regular routine for a short while, meeting other diasporans who have repatriated to Armenia and rooted their lives in the homeland, you really begin to think of Armenia as your homeland, your nation, your responsibility. After just a couple of weeks of with Birthright Armenia, I couldn’t imagine myself living the rest of my life without Armenia as a major part of my reality.

Regardless of the different paths I might take in my life, Armenia is and will always remain my focal point. Whatever personal gains I may achieve, everything will eventually result in gains for the homeland. We, as diasporans, and as people who regard themselves as Armenian, need to realize that our destiny is inevitably linked to the destiny of our nation; If we live our lives disconnected from our nation—if we continue on in our own separate existence, hoping to achieve success, satisfaction, and fulfillment within our own respective environments—we will eventually lose that innate part of ourselves that has given us life and has enabled us to achieve success in the first place. We can never forget where we have come from, where we are today, and our collective cause. Although many of us don’t necessarily trace our lineage from within the current borders of Armenia, we must realize that the future of Armenia is ours for the making—in all its responsibility, work, accomplishments, and satisfaction. Birthright Armenia truly changed my life, and I have no doubt that it could change yours.

3 thoughts on “In Gyumri – In Search

  1. Absolutely amazing and inspirational blog! I’m planning on doing the Birthright this fall and hope to experience and take away as much awe as you have! Thanks for sharing…

  2. Pingback: In Gyumri – In Search | [Հոսանք - Hosank]

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