Moving Forward

Sylvia Ohanyan
(Berwyn, PA, United States)

Four months ago, I left for Armenia in the dead of winter with zero expectations. As the first member of my family to visit our homeland, it was hard for me to even try to imagine what my journey through Birthright Armenia would entail, so I dove in with an open mind. Sure, I was able to anticipate the bitter cold of February, so I packed a parka, but, now that I am back in the United States, I smile to myself every time I think about the ways Armenia, and myself in Armenia, surprised me every day.

I never anticipated the number of questions I would receive regarding my Armenian-ness. In the US, I feel more Armenian than American. Both of my parents are Armenian, it was my first language, and I attended Armenian school through the eighth grade. No one had ever doubted my ethnicity. Armenia was the last place I thought I would stand out, but I did. I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to Harry Potter every time someone asked me if I had clean blood, which means if both of my parents are Armenian. Even when I would speak Armenian, the locals knew I wasn’t a Hayastanzi because of my Western Armenian upbringing and considered me an outsider. In the beginning, I attended language classes and wanted to learn the Eastern dialect to blend in better. But, after a while, I decided that Armenian is Armenian. I speak Armenian. Just because some of our words or grammar techniques are different, doesn’t mean we’re speaking different languages. When I became more confident in my Western ability, it became easier and more fun to interact with the locals and to feel more included in the community.

I never anticipated that my favorite aspect of Birthright Armenia would be the village excursions on Saturdays. As jetlagged as I was during my orientation to the program, I still remember Sevan telling us that Yerevan is not the real Armenia and that we would need to visit the villages in order to gain a better understanding of the country. Every village experience left a special memory in my heart. From the hosts toasting us, welcoming us to Armenia, to the delicious home cooked meals, to the cows wandering around on their own, to the outhouses, I always loved visiting the villages. Our overnight trip to Tatev a little over a month after I arrived in Armenia stands out in my mind as my favorite excursion: wandering around the monastery, eating delicious khorovats with our hands, dancing with the villagers, and hiking for four hours. In the morning, my host dad’s 60 or 70 something-year-old friend came by for breakfast and the two of them began drinking vodka and toasting to our health. At one point, the friend started crying as he said that family and happiness are the most important aspects of life. Even through his slurred speech, I knew what he meant, and finally felt a deeper connection to the Armenian people.

I never anticipated how many adventures I would have in Armenia, and I don’t just mean trying to cross the street through Yerevan traffic. Yes, I like new experiences in the US, but I’m also used to my comforts. In Armenia, I forced myself outside my comfort zone and loved the results. Biking through Yerevan traffic to Etchmiadzin and back in the blazing April sun—definitely not something I would have ever considered doing. But pushing myself every mile, knowing that the finish line was a little bit closer but the end would be a ride uphill, yet refusing to give up, and then finally returning to the starting point, that was an accomplishment. Or the hike from the village in Tatev to the main road that was supposed to be a nice, leisurely walk downhill to admire the views of the monastery and waterfalls, which turned into a five hour advanced hike when we somehow either lost the trail or stayed on a trail which was scarier than expected. Taking the time to appreciate the scenery while climbing through gravel on all fours and not sliding down the mountain, definitely another accomplishment. Every time I pushed myself physically in Armenia and succeeded, I was able to compare it to that point in my mental journey to encourage myself to keep moving forward.

I never anticipated how attached I would become with everyone: my fellow volunteers, the Birthright staff, my students. From adjusting to my new life, to witnessing Yerevan’s nightlife, to tasting Armenian apricots for the first time, the volunteers became my support system and my family. When I returned home and checked my emails, I was thrilled to see messages from five of my new friends welcoming me back. The Birthright Armenia staff members were always free to chat, and I became just as close to them as I did to the volunteers; we met their families and were invited to their homes. My volunteer position in Yerevan my first two months as an English teacher meant I spent my days interacting with the Armenian youth, and learning about the country through them. Yes, there were days when they were rowdy and wanted to speak Armenian with me instead of English, but it was nice running into them on the streets of Yerevan after I had finished my service and having them come up to me and ask me (in English) if I’d be returning to the school in September. I spent the second half of my service in Gyumri, volunteering at the Our Lady of Armenia Educational Center tutoring the students in English, observing classes, and translating articles for their newsletter. When else am I going to have the opportunity to play with kids during recess as part of my job? I’ll never forget playing hide and go seek, helping the kids ride bikes, and teaching eight-year-old Hovhaness how to write and recite the English alphabet. Although I’ve just returned to the US, I hope to return to Armenia in the next year so I can be reunited with my new local friends and my students.

On my last day in Armenia, during my exit interview, Sevan asked me if this whole experience was worth it. As all of my memories, the good and the bad, came rushing back to me, I started to cry because I did not want my journey to end and to say good-bye to everyone. Although I could have extended my service and stayed in Armenia longer, I knew in my heart that the best way for me to return to Armenia in the future and to have a deeper impact on the country is by returning to the US, applying for my Master’s degree, and gaining more experience in my field.

I have been home for a week. I’ve finally overcome my jetlag, my strange sock tan is slowly starting to fade, I have no job prospects and I am still waiting to hear back from graduate school. But, I am happy, content, optimistic, and excited for the next chapter of my life, and those feelings over shine anything I could have ever tried to anticipate.

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