The first thing I learned in Armenia was that, though I’m ethnically 100% Armenian, for all intents and purposes I identify as 100% American. I felt very American, even among Armenian-Americans. Despite that, I do not feel like my experience was less valuable or less enjoyable. My trip to Armenia became an opportunity to gain clarity on some of the most important differences concerning identity between American and Armenian cultures. This article will not be a story of an American boy learning what it is to be Armenian but rather becoming a student of the country of Armenia.
At first, I actually had a lot of trouble understanding why people cared so deeply about ethnicity at all. My own ethnicity had always been something that was in the background. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents instilled in me the values of respect, hard work, and hospitality, but the idea that these values might be Armenian in nature rarely entered the equation for me. My parents chose to teach me these values, and I chose to accept them as my own. Overly simplistic? Yes. But during my trip to Armenia I found this focus on the individual to be much more American than Armenian.
In America, we like to view identity in terms of the individual. Suggesting that I am one way because I am Armenian and my friend is another because he is Italian is largely discouraged. It is difficult to make generalizations in a public forum without angering people. We don’t like generalizations here, because we feel they undermine our individuality. So, if we are being good politically correct Americans, when we talk about a person and the way that he behaves, we will mention how his parents chose to bring him up or how he chose to live his live, but we will not make generalizations about how his ethnicity may have affected his values.
I am not championing this philosophy or saying it is exclusively western. I am not even claiming that most Americans refrain from making these generalizations; however, I think it is hard to deny that from an ideological standpoint the focus on the individual and individual liberty is as pervasive in the United States as it is in any other country on the planet. In America we have, above all, a shared belief in the value of individual freedom, and this ethos is used as the justification for virtually every movement in the United States. Whether it is gay rights, the right to own guns, the outlawing of guns, or a justification for war, there is always the argument made that the initiative will in some way preserve or improve the freedom of this country and its citizens.
Economically, this ideology manifests as a culture of capitalism and on a micro level, a culture of supporting oneself. For the most part, it is looked down upon in America to live with your parents after your early twenties, while in Armenia it is acceptable even into your thirties. Personally, I always thought that this difference was due mainly to the lack of opportunity for people in Armenia, and I think that it largely is, but what I found interesting was that the young native Armenians were much less forgiving of their own people for this phenomenon. Almost across the board, young Armenians with whom I spoke seemed to have tremendous respect for the idea that Americans were expected to live on their own. One even told me “many people [in Armenia] are too lazy to do this.” Whether the charge of “laziness” is justified or not, I believe that Armenians I met envy this type of financial independence and the individual freedom that comes with it.
The other side to this argument is that there are many things that Armenians find unappealing about the United States because such radical individuality has its price. In Armenia, students I taught would express shock at the amount of drug use and violence in the US. They also seemed to generalize Americans as cold and selfish, and on some level they are right. In America we often neglect the notion of community and of family. There are strong communities in America to be sure, but the feeling of national kinship in Armenia is much stronger than it is in America. To understand what I mean, one must look no further than the Armenian sense of hospitality. While a group of twenty-something Americans quibble over dividing the bill evenly amongst each member of the group, making sure that nobody pays a cent more than they owe, a young Armenian, financially poor by American standards, is happy to treat the group to dinner. It is no exaggeration that an Armenian will quite literally give you the shirt off his back. I have seen it happen.
The many possible reasons for this difference in culture are beyond the scope of this essay, but I believe the power of Armenian fellowship should not be underestimated. Yerevan, despite being the largest city of a developing country, is a much safer city than most US cities, and I saw far less homelessness in Yerevan than I see in New York or Philadelphia. Though it is just my own conjecture, I don’t believe it far-fetched to suggest that these observations derive from the tight-knit community in this small country.
Armenia is a young country with many problems, but it has the benefit of a vocal young population and a diaspora who is invested in its survival. The younger generation seems to long for their nation to enjoy the same economic and social freedoms as the west, while maintaining their Armenian identity. The question is: What is to be preserved and what is to be improved? In order to answer this question, one must first decide what is central to the Armenian identity—what it means to be Armenian. In the diaspora we have so many, often conflicting, ideas about this definition. Therefore, I believe that going forward, the answer to what it means to be Armenian must ultimately come from Armenia itself.
As an American from the suburbs of New Jersey, I do not believe it is my place to be a part of defining what is important to the country of Armenia. But as an Armenian it is my job is to be a student of the issues that Armenia faces moving forward and to use this framework to inform my Armenian identity and the ways I can be a part of Armenia’s growth.