Remaining Armenian Outside Armenia

Old Times  by *Healzo
Old Times by *Healzo

Today was the graduation/promotion day for children of Armenian and Sunday schools at our church. I sat in the back enjoying the whole event and thinking about the difficult challenge of maintaining an Armenian community and culture far from Armenia. Some of the children have Armenian first and last names, others only have the last names, and some have neither. Some are bilingual, others speak English only and are getting introduced to Armenian through the Armenian school. This diversity also reflects the overall church parish with first, second, and even third generation Armenians, many with non-Armenian spouses or themselves children of mixed marriages. Thankfully, the church family has a wonderful accepting atmosphere of love, friendship and fellowship. But the question of survival of that which uniquely identifies us remains as relevant as ever.

Also this week I read an article about the oldest leather shoe discovery in Armenia. From the oldest shoe to often being an old-shoe, what do Armenians have and what can Armenians do to preserve and enhance what Armenians have? The basics are our religion, the spoken language, our cuisine, the annual habits and traditions. These we seem to maintain more or less. Unfortunately, it takes enormous efforts to maintain and pass along the basics. Many families do not have an Armenian church nearby and must travel miles to get to one. We speak Armenian at home but our son would rather answer in English (extremely painful for me personally). We cook Armenian foods but even those are under constant attack and argument about actual origin, the real recipe, etc. If the basics are challenging, conversation about the complexities is meaningless.

For example, how does an Armenian mother raise a daughter with the same strong family devotion and sacrifice qualities in this individualistic, self-centered culture where over half of marriages result in a divorce? What qualities would it require to raise children who not only spoke but also read and wrote freely in Armenian? What gargantuan effort would it take to teach these children enough of the language for them to actually understand the literature? And would it even be possible for them to contribute to that literature? So even if we are able to get through the simple and complex challenges, what do we do for our children to repeat the process for another generation? Is the problem completely hopeless when only one spouse is of Armenian descent? Each family struggles in its own ways with these issues. Unfortunately, the kids grow up to struggle themselves as they try to establish families in the context of their bi-cultural upbringing.

Perhaps the answer is in our struggle. While we may disagree how a word should be pronounced or what the right way to make խորոված (Armenian BBQ) is, we all share the burden of our historical struggles and sufferings. Why not unite around our current struggle to preserve and enhance our culture and use that as the single source of agreement even when we disagree about everything else. Second, we need to ask and learn from our Jewish friends who have persevered despite their distance from a homeland and despite their struggles. While books could be written about the differences between the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, the struggle of survival after devastation of that magnitude with majority of people living outside the homeland is certainly something we have in common.

Do we (Armenians living outside Armenia) have more in common with other cultures (or the current host culture) than we do with one another? What about a generation later? It is fascinating to see a different struggle (whether a set of schools in Armenia should be converted to be completely foreign language based) evolve in the homeland where they seem to be oblivious to these issues.


  1. A simply fascinating topic. As American-Armenians, it is probably the most important matter to consider…. if we dare allow our minds to wander into something so contrary to our American life. I am a second generation American born Armenian. My grandparents were Genocide survivors from Western Armenia and came here shortly after WWI.
    My father, myself and now my children were born into and raised in this duality that you speak of. We lived an American life in our neighborhood and schools, but an Armenian life with family and especially on the weekends. The struggles you describe were daily….
    my grandparents loved us dearly but were upset over the loss of the mother tongue as the primary language.
    I have long held the view that to be an Armenian in the diaspora is a choice. Someone makes the decision that its important and makes the commitment to drive to the church, go to the schools, cook the food and have your children develop the “hye sird”. My parents made that decision and I will always be grateful to them. My wife and I made a similar decision as have many. But it is a choice. There are many places to hide if one chooses to assimilate. Take your pick… stop speaking the language, don’t go to the church or in my view the big one….. lose your identity through ignorance. For my grandparents and in Armenia today, the struggle is different… it may be survival or economic, but you remain Armenian because of the environment. Every time an Armenian turns their back on our culture, it is part of the continuing impact of Talaat… a cultural genocide through assimilation.
    What can we do? As you have so beautifully stated, the fact that we recognize this as challenge is the start. A conscious act!!!
    Next we need to set the example for our children… make the sacrifices and our children will learn these values. This is the most difficult part because it is marginally compatible with the western culture of “instant gratification” and “I want it all”.
    But we are succeeding in large part. The Turkish plan in 1915 was to exterminate our people and those who survived would be scattered and assimilate within 1 or 2 generations. We are now entering the fourth
    generation born here post genocide. Talaat failed!!!
    For those of us who have made that decision, our life mission is to build Armenian communities and to gather “the wandering sheep” This is how I view community involvement. Yes, I do get tremendous personal fulfillment from participating, but the big picture is that we are all, in our own way, contributing to the long road to recovery and survival. We remember that in a diaspora; it is a choice and a state of mind. Children who are half Armenian or less reverse assimilation through education, identity and commitment. That’s where the work is. It’s difficult, it can be frustrating, but this was decided a long time ago. We have to make sure the torch stays lit for our children. God Bless You and Our People!!

  2. The depth of this dilemma is far reaching and complicated. Think of the many cultural backgrounds that have immigrated to this the greatest Nation on earth. Part of what makes it so great is the fact that we have such a diverse population. Each group has struggled to maintain cultural identity while at the same time contributing to almost everything that makes the US great.

    The issue from this “red neck” southerner’s point of view is not retaining or maintaining cultural identity, but avoiding (many times on purpose)those cultural mores that detract from being “American”. Things like the macho attitude from some Hispanic cultures that demean women and especially the radical roots of some Islamic cultures that keep women “boxed up” and uneducated or free. (I just had this conversation with a female Dr. friend whose parents fled Iran after the Shah when women were relegated to second class citizens).

    Those that came here at the beginning of this great country and up through the turn of last century forged a new culture from their oppressed roots that became distinctly American. Freedom to worship, property ownership, capitalism, freedom of speech, free markets, etc. were all cherished.

    The Armenian influence has been great in the area of the Arts, Industry, Education, Business, and many other areas. It will continue to be so, because that is also the influence of most Armenians I know. As you know, however, the best BarBQ, is southern. But I also like some Armenian foods. (They just do not all like me!)

    Your kids will hang on to the “best” of the Armenian culture because I know the influence of those in your family. They will also contribute to the US those values, work ethics, and influence uniquely attributable to that culture while at the same time helping the rest of us sort out what is best for the future of our “American Culture”.

    We just need to STOP the dilution factor caused by any and all who are not willing to adopt the principles set forth in our Constitution and Bill of Rights! The founders had it right!

  3. Stepan – Thanks for the comment. You have added quite a bit. It’s not only a choice but also a difficult commitment. I would rather we argue and fight about what it means to remain Armenian or what some Armenian politician said or did or didn’t do, than not care or be ambivalent. I also really appreciate many օտարներ who are very committed to our church. The least we can do is return the favor. What I really wish is for every Armenian to read and understand this. Imagine how this one sounds in Armeninan.

    Mike – I read about the ridiculous disclaimer a publisher put on the Constitution. Armenian values and heritage do not conflict with the values set forth in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, universal documents addressing people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. It is sad how some try to play games (such as remove the words “under God” from the pledge) or prevent the teaching of history (of Armenian Genocide) in schools but the healthy debate is what makes this country so powerful. The founding documents of this country will always stand for themselves much like the Bible does.

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