“What Are You?” and other infuriating questions you’re definitely going to ask me.
At least once a week I have an interaction with someone who asks me, “What are you?”. I try to respond with a clever quip. It becomes a game between the two of us. I play because I don’t have an answer. It usually goes like this:
Person: What are you?
Person: No, that’s super obvious. Where’s your family from?
Me: Oh I’m-
Person: Let me be offensive and guess.
Person: Alright, let’s see. You’ve got a prominent nose. Are you Jewish?
This is the part of the conversation where I suppress what I actually want to say, and instead share a cute anecdote about always wishing I had been Jewish. I tell them that I wasn’t lucky enough to be one of the chosen ones. I tell them that I would come home from school every day as a child and get mad at my parents for not raising me and my siblings in the Jewish faith. I feel the need to constantly show people the ways in which I was a tiny little monster.
If they’re still standing in front of me at that point, the conversation continues:
Person: Ok, your family seems to have a good amount of money. Are you Persian?
This is the part of the conversation where I have to pull from the one meditation class I’ve taken, and explain what a socially insensitive comment looks like. This one wasn’t too bad, but I try to relay the message that you shouldn’t generalize an entire group of people based on the amount of money they have, or appear to have. Or generalize them at all. I would then thank them for insinuating that I looked expensive. I’m human and self-esteem is hard. It continues:
Person: Ok, you’re getting a little preachy so honestly I’m losing interest.
Me: No, I’m sorry! Please, keep talking about me.
Person: Ok, fine. Just tell me.
Me: I’m Armenian.
From this point forward, the end of the conversation would be different based on the year. Pre-2007, the person would pretend to know what Armenia was and would then briskly jog away from me. Post-2007, this is how the conversation went:
Person: No way. You’re a Kardashian!
This is when I savagely murder them. If you’re reading this and in law enforcement, that was a joke. I’m sure this happens with most ethnicities, but when your country has a single family in the zeitgeist that the public can pull from, the comparisons become dull (Kylie, if you’re reading this, send me some lip kits cuz!).
I keep chugging through:
Me: Yeah, we’re cousins.
Person: Are you serious?!
Me: I mean, it’s such a small country, so we’re all sort of related.
Person: Do you know them?!
It’s important to note that at this point in the conversation emojis (kimojis?) are most likely pouring from said person’s ears, and I’m bleeding from my eyes.
Said person explodes, and I do a traditional Armenian dance on their grave.
Growing up the descendant of Armenian immigrants was a pretty weird experience overall. My childhood consistently felt like a cultural identity crisis. From the little I learned about Armenia growing up, I knew the culture was pretty dope. I was never fully immersed- but always intrigued. I was far from an expert when it came to my cultural roots. It should be known that regardless of how little I knew, I obviously put the colors of the Armenian flag in my AIM bio. This was (and still is, as far as I’m concerned) the most serious sign of praise and commitment. If you try to tell me that having your boyfriend or girlfriend’s name at the top of your bio wasn’t the most important achievement in your young life, you will be lying right to my damn face. I’d love to hear about how that felt, as I was in a committed relationship with Totino’s pizza rolls. Naturally, I loved Armenian food with a passion. I had that much down. To fully paint the picture, I was a really chubby kid consistently eating my family out of house and home.
In the fourth grade I had the task of picking a country to center our biggest project of the year on. I picked the homeland. I went where every eager little tyke goes when wanting to uncover information about a specific country: countrys.com. No my friend, your eyes do not deceive you. I straight up didn’t know how to spell the word “countries” by the time I reached the fourth grade. I’m not ashamed, and I won’t take responsibility. I blame Betsy DeVos. I know that makes no sense, but I have a well of pent up political frustration that needs somewhere to go.
Anyway, countrys.com ended up being a pornographic website preying on people who couldn’t spell. In horror, I closed the site immediately. I then proceeded to re-open it every day for a year. Once I was finished examining every page, I realized I had about four days left to finish the project and save myself from public humiliation. I turned to the single fact that I knew about Armenian culture. We fucking thrive in the rug industry. We own that shit. I didn’t do a lick of research, which is one of my classic moves. I truly wing everything. I cut some construction paper and had those little brats weave fake rugs. I straight up ran a sweatshop in my elementary school classroom, and I was a boss. I ended up getting a C and continued on with my plight of being chased around the playground at recess.
Besides the occasional cultural lesson from my Grandmother I was told that, first and foremost, I was an American. My family came to this country through Ellis Island. They did everything they could to assimilate and give their children a better life. Beyond anything else, that was what mattered most. That was what took precedent. However, because of this, I grew up watching my family at holiday gatherings and feeling somehow removed. I liken it to the way you probably felt when you watched My Big Fat Greek wedding for the first time. You appreciate and find them amusing, but mostly just want to turn them off. That last part is specifically my family and not a read of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is a classic American treasure. There was a distinct pride in my family’s cultural heritage that was unmistakable and unspoken, and it frustrated the hell out of me. It was like a high school clique that I wasn’t allowed to be a part of. I didn’t know the words, I didn’t know the jokes, but I could watch and admire from afar. It felt like being in a museum. It was lonely and captivating all at once.
I decided it was time to use my fourth grade education and take to the internet. I learned that Armenia and its people haven’t had an easy go of it. Genocide, poverty, and no one knowing that the little that’s left of your country even exists. Damn. As I learned more about my heritage, I began to share in my family’s pride. It was exhilarating to know I came from a bloodline of true fighters. These people were not given the short end of the stick. They weren’t given any stick at all. They took what they had and simply persevered. I felt such an immense connection to these people I didn’t know, and to a country I had never stepped foot in. This was my heritage; the connection was immediate and strong. It baffled me that the world not only refused to acknowledge these people- they didn’t even know they existed.
As I’ve gotten older, my Armenian pride has only grown. There’s a camaraderie that is shared between people of Armenian descent that is inspiring. That -ian at the end of every last name is a badge; the key to a secret society. If you happened to catch me discovering that a stranger in my general vicinity was Armenian, you would assume we were raised by wolves together. I’m willing to guess that most people feel this way about their own kind. Like the majority of people in this awesome melting pot of a country, I don’t actually know that much about my heritage. That’s not something I’m especially proud of, but it’s the truth. Intermittent facts, like loose change, are my calling card when people ask about Armenia. As I strive to know more, and to generally be better in all aspects of life, I have to wonder if these facts are even a necessity of the camaraderie. I believe that what we crave as humans is much simpler than that. Being able to look at someone who’s Armenian and know that our ancestors shared the same heartache provides an instant bond. The fact that we both have to defend a reality show on the daily doesn’t hurt either. But why do we require that background to feel a connection with other humans?
I’m starting to understand why the bond of our ancestor’s struggle and shared DNA often feels stronger than the bond we feel with other Americans who may not resemble our immediate family. We don’t all share the same ancient ancestry, but we are all chilling on a rock that is hurling through space. That’s a pretty severe and definite connection. I don’t think construction paper rugs and stuffed grape leaves are the reason I feel closer to someone who’s Armenian. In fact, I hate stuffed grape leaves. They’re gross, and I finally feel comfortable admitting that. I feel closer to Armenians, because from a young age, I was simply told to love them. They were the people I loved the hardest. They were the people I was most familiar and comfortable with. There was no mystery. I was shown that Armenians are kind, passionate, and hard-working people. I was shown that they are insanely loud, and will do anything for a laugh. Come to find out, these characteristics are not exclusively Armenian! Who knew? These are things we all share.
American “pride” is going through a branding crisis. It is being ruthlessly snatched up as if it comes in limited quantities. It is being re-defined with every horrifying news update. We are allowing ourselves to be divided by greedy people with terrible hair, while we all continue to lose. While we need to open our eyes collectively as a nation before we have a marching army of walking comb-overs on our hands, we also need to open our eyes to each other. Perhaps that will be the consolation prize in this jarring and truly testing political discourse. That what we’re searching for is right next door. It’s down the block. We’re really all quite similar at our cores. When it comes down to it, we all basically have a fourth grade education and occasionally look at porn.