An Improbable yet Beautiful Corner of the World

Joseph Hakoopian

From the moment my flight touched down in Yerevan, I began trying to fit in. The best way to do so, I figured, was to learn the language. Aside from fulfilling my responsibilities as an Armenia Volunteer Corps (AVC) member and participating in Birthright Armenia events – and a few bottles of Kotayk here and there – I sat at my desk and studied. After three months, however, I decided that I had memorized enough. I moved from my host family’s apartment to one of my own. I needed space to be me. As I would tell people when they asked, it finally occurred to me Amerikahay em, and that no amount of studying would make me Hayastanits.

When I got back to the States, after nearly six months abroad, I started speaking some Armenian with my father. Quickly, I realized we represent different parts of the Armenian diaspora. Six months after returning home, I have yet to reconcile this difference between us.

“Het ganchir,” he said once as we drove up to the train station.

“Okay! I will!” I replied, before swinging the car door shut. There was no time to think in Armenian. Rather, there was a train to catch. Juggling a coffee, my ticket and the backpack that had slipped from my shoulder and hung from my forearm, I ran onto the platform. The train doors almost closed on me. But there were plenty of seats inside. I slouched across two as my heart slowed to a resting pace.

How do you het ganchir anyway? Call with? Why didn’t he tell me indz zangir? To ring him? That’s what they say in Armenia. Although it does seem a little goofy that everyone there wants to be rung. I don’t know many people, here in the states, who would give me a ring. I thought about this until I arrived in Manhattan and shuttled up the west side to Columbia. Being Armenian was as complicated as it had ever been.

Instead of wrestling with it, I have come to appreciate the fate that guided me to Armenia, complete understanding of my heritage or not. My decision to go had little more than to do with the fact that I knew I needed to know more about Armenian culture. I would also spend a few months prepping American students for the SAT after graduating from Cornell, and I knew that a small group of amazing students in Armenia would need the same preparation months later. Birthright Armenian and the AVC would be glad to have me. From there, I merely booked a flight to an improbable yet beautiful corner of the world.

Before going I had known that I wanted to attend graduate school in New York City, and that Columbia University Teachers College offers an esteemed English Education program, but I wasn’t sure about the school’s location all the way up near Harlem. How could I manage living in Brooklyn and riding trains for nearly two hours a day, to and from school, amidst coursework and student teaching, obligations other universities spread over two year programs? How else but by living in Brooklyn would city life be affordable? I didn’t have any answers. I simply assumed I would find a way to make it happen and submitted my application. Besides, I was far more concerned with my rapidly approaching journey.

In the end, Armenia magnanimously decided things. About the time I was accepted to Columbia, Birthright Armenia introduced me to a remarkable little organization, the Luys Foundation, which works in conjunction with Armenia’s government to sponsor students of Armenian descent in their academic pursuits. During my first meeting with Luys, I barely mentioned Columbia when I was told that I was practically a Luys scholar. Columbia was on the list of schools whose attendees are eligible for scholarship. And so, I went to Armenia intent on answering questions concerning my heritage, and I left with a scholarship and a handful of dear friends.