My ideas of Armenia before this summer were informed by a picture that was far from complete. In this picture, Armenia was a small, socio-economically disadvantaged country that 100 years ago suffered a terrible and devastating genocide, but despite it all celebrated a rich cultural heritage. Other than that, the ideas I held were fragmented and vague.
But the funny thing about ideas is it doesn’t take a lot for one to propel you to action. I think even just the existence of a program like Birthright Armenia is a testament to the fact that for most diasporans, regardless of their involvement in the community, their idea of Armenia – however vague – is quite powerful.
My sister and I, despite being given very Armenian names, grew up in a household where Armenian was never spoken to us. But the idea of my Armenian-ness remained a part of my identity as a child largely due to my mother, having been born and raised in Yerevan, realizing on some level that it was important not to let us forget we’re Armenian. But I lived (like many diasporans I have met since my BR experience) a dual cultural reality.
Growing up, I had on one hand Armenian summer camps, Armenian Sunday School (where I learned a little about the language and a lot about the genocide), and Armenian family gatherings. On the other hand, I had my completely American school and social life, where homogeneity and ‘American-ness’ is kind of key to fitting in. In the end, my American reality won the cultural tug-of-war and once I grew old enough to make decisions for myself about how I spent my time outside of school, Armenian-related activities and events faded into the distance. It wasn’t until the confusing and soul-searching gap years after graduating college that I seriously revisited the Armenian idea and after much internal debate, purchased a one-way ticket to Armenia.
The few weeks before I left, the reality of my decision set in. I started to recognize that my ideas about Armenia were shaky and ungrounded and I became filled with anxiety. I tried to prepare myself for the real Armenia by asking others what it might be like.
Most influential was source #1, my mother. Logically, she should be a reliable source – she grew up in Yerevan. Though my mother’s work keeps her involved in Armenian events and politics, it has been decades since she lived there and the ideas she expressed to me about Armenia failed to prepare me for the reality – I might even say some of her ideas set me back a few steps (a prime example being her assurances that lacking any language skills whatsoever wouldn’t “really inconvenience me that much,” and Armenian “isn’t that difficult to learn”).
Another cause for anxiety came from source #2, my cousin. At the time, I wasn’t aware of this small, but very important fact, that she has never actually been to Armenia. Not only did listening to her ideas about Armenia not prepare me for my trip, but her negative perceptions on what life would be like contradicted those conveyed by my mother and I was left confused and unsure what/who to believe.
And then there’s source #3, my sister, who did a 4 week Habitat for Humanity program 6 years ago and, to the horror of my mother, came back with a tattoo of the Armenian flag on her chest. I think this one speaks for itself.
Essentially, I realized that while it’s important to take others’ accounts into consideration, listening to or reading about others’ impressions and ideas is no substitute for real experience. Armenia is made up of much more than the ideas of its inhabitants and visitors – it’s a very real place, with real beauty to be admired and real issues to be confronted. No idea can fully prepare you for the reality, the reality you make for yourself.
During and Post-Birthright Armenia:
My first few weeks living in Armenia were incredibly humbling. I won’t even hesitate to say that not speaking the language was the main reason. One example: Every day on my way to and from the metro station, I walked by a large shookah where vendors sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Every day, I wanted to buy a bag of fresh strawberries on my own to bring home to my host family (who was absolutely wonderful, by the way). It wasn’t until day 17 that I gathered the courage to do so — believe it or not, this was a huge milestone for me.
Another milestone occurred much later and much more gradually, when, to my pleasant surprise, getting ripped off by taxi drivers became a less frequent occurrence. There were plenty more milestones — far too many, in fact, to list in this blog.
By the time I left Armenia, I had experienced countless changes of mind and heart. When people from home asked what life was like in Armenia, I wanted to give an honest answer, but the truth was that I didn’t know yet. I realize now that two and a half months in Armenia was, for me, simply not enough time because I still can’t answer the question, “What is Armenia like?” Perhaps I never will completely. But it’s important to me that my idea of Armenia – my answer to the question, “What is Armenia like?” – is informed by reality to the best of my ability, and I owe an enormous thank you to BirthRight Armenia (its wonderful staff and its participants who have become dear friends) for helping me start to make that possible.
It’s really unique, I think, that the Armenian idea takes on so many manifestations in and outside of the country itself. But whatever claims you might hear people making about the homeland, as outrageous, upsetting, funny, unrealistic, exaggerated as some might be, it’s important that the ideas are there. However far some may be from the reality, these ideas have proven that they have the power to motivate change, inspire curiosity, encourage action, and most importantly, when finally confronted with reality, ideas and perceptions themselves can change for the better. And when they do, the reality changes too.