THE (HYE)BRID IDENTITY
by: Alexa Gris
Identity within the Armenian context is a complex and multi-faceted concept. With diaspora populations all over the world and two different dialects boasting their own regional twists (i.e.: Farsi/Arabic words mixed in by Iranian/Lebanese Armenians), Armenians have developed our senses of selves in many diverse ways. Armenian identity is often impacted by the location of our home countries, access to cultural resources near us, and our socioeconomic status.
However- regardless of the diversity within Armenian populations, our communities have generally idealized a small set of identifiable characteristics in order to classify something otherwise undefinable: Armenianness.
Trying to measure Armenianness is not a new development within our community. Though it’s impossible to actually calculate how Armenian we are, we attempt it again and again. We cite surname and ability to speak the mother tongue as yardsticks of measure. While both are wonderfully important forms of cultural preservation and expression, the exclusive adherence of Armenianness to these factors can be isolating for those who have not had the exposure to the Armenian language and “-yan/-ian” last names.
Classifying individual cultural immersion based on a few generalized characteristics comes with extensive consequences. Among them is the fact that Armenians with varying backgrounds feel the need to prove or verify their Armenianness. It seems as though there is a threshold to reach in order to truly prove how Armenian we are. This exclusive title of “Armenian enough” is one that is commonly bestowed upon those that check off necessary boxes on a list that fails to acknowledge many additional individual factors that form critical parts of our Armenian identity. The stereotype laden list of requirements (most of the time, based on factors out of our control) tends to omit important parts of our culture that are not found on a resume. For starters- it could never quantify the passion and love we have for our roots. Methods of such exclusion drive a wedge between communities that could otherwise help encourage and expand these landmarks of our heritage.
GROWING UP HY(e)brid
As a half-Armenian, half-Egyptian, I grew up with tons of insecurities about my own Armenianness. This was especially true in my formative years at Armenian school. I felt very different with my non-Armenian first and last name. I didn’t look Armenian, nor did I look Egyptian, and to this day I am told constantly that I “still don’t look either.” At a young age, I was told that it was wrong to marry an odar (a foreigner, a stranger); a non-Armenian like my dad. Subsequently, I felt very, very different from everyone around me.
When I reflect upon my life as a half Armenian – over a decade of Armenian education, followed by eight years in predominantly white, Catholic schools – I can’t seem to remember a time where I truly felt like I 100% belonged to any of my communities: American, Armenian nor Egyptian. During the times I was enveloped in my American community, I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb with my first-generation American status and immigrant family. In my Egyptian community, I felt lost because I don’t speak Arabic, am not close to my extended Egyptian family and do not practice Coptic Christianity. And in my Armenian community, I heard repeatedly how supposedly wrong it was to date (let alone marry) an “odar” (a foreigner, stranger, non-Armenian) while my dad and I sat quietly, wondering what was so wrong about my parents’ marriage and questioning whether or not I would ever count as Armenian enough.
Something I am ashamed to admit now is that throughout my adolescence I purposefully turned a blind eye to my dad’s Egyptian culture because I was terrified it would make me less Armenian. Through time I learned that there is no test to pass that makes you an Armenian, there is no diploma that graduates us from the school of Armenianness. A list of qualifications do not make us any more fit for our natural heritage. You can be Armenian by name and not speak the language. You can speak the language and not have an Armenian name. You can have neither or you can have both, but what truly defines your identity is your personal decision.
In reality, nothing makes or breaks your Armenianness. It all boils down to your personal connection with your culture. The dedication you show to your Armenian identity – not what others expect or think of your Armenianness. What you do to bring yourself closer to the culture matters more than the last name you were born with, or your ability to speak our language with a perfect accent. What you do to remember our incredibly strong ancestors, whose resilience is the only reason we are here, matters more than how thick your eyebrows are or how dark your hair is. Our unique differences, regardless of name, education, race, gender, political leaning, and economic status are what will enhance our communities to be more open-minded, accepting and empathetic.
To conclude- here is one of my favorite responses from the @kooyrigs forum on the topic of being Armenian enough, and it is one whose message I believe to be fiercely important: