BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
We arrive on time at the local watering hole to meet with friends we haven’t seen in quite a while. Seems everyone is running late. Richard is the first to arrive, apologizing for his tardiness, not realizing that all of the others are still on their way.
After the initial “Hellos” and “How have you beens?” were asked and addressed, he turned and commented on a past column I’d written entitled Who is an Armenian? Richard is quieter and more reflective than most the others we were expecting to see this evening. He rarely spoke extensively so when he asked the question, it was evident that he’s spent quite a bit of time on the subject he was about to address.
“But we need to further ask ourselves what is an Armenian value system?” he says. It seemed like a vague statement that used words that were hard to describe.
“How do you associate the word Armenian with any sort of word?” he says as a way of expanding on the topic. “Fill in the blank. For example, when you say ‘Japanese’ immediately you think about discipline, organizational agility, efficiency. ‘German’ you think about discipline, execution, leadership. ‘American’ you think about value of wealth, hard work. When it comes to ‘Armenian’ there is no value system.”
How is that possible? It seemed that Armenian values were so clear that they never needed to be stated. But in trying to identify it I discovered that is much more difficult to do than I initially thought. Richard suggests that maybe, given our wide Diasporan existence and our nomadic lifestyle of the last couple of generations, we have adopted the value system of our host cultures: Iranian-Armenians from Iranians, Lebanese-Armenians from the Lebanese, and so on. “So when you mix and match everything, and try to think of a national value system nothing really stands out.”
“What about our value of the family?” I ask.
“Okay, but you see that amongst Americans too,” he said and went on to explain that if we step out of the limelight of the big migrant cities like Los Angeles and New York, an American’s sense of family was very much like ours.
“There is an American value system: it includes things like competition, material wealth, hard work, independence, individualism. But in the Armenian value system there is no individualism, there is no independence. You assume ‘family’ as a value system but it’s not. Family is basically a medium that provides you a value system,” he explains.
“Wait a minute,” I said, unwilling to accept that we had no identifiable set of values. “Armenians can be equated with entrepreneurship. With survival.”
He focuses on the word “survival” but questions its integration in a value system. “That’s a verb. What does that mean or what does that say bout the values we hold? Maybe you can interpret that to say we’re flexible.”
“Yes. That is very true. As a value system, I believe that’s actually true,” Richard agrees. Armenians are resilient and adapt easily. The established communities in almost every country in the world are a testament to those two traits. “You can literally lift us up from here, drop us in the Amazon, and will still create the same social structure.”
“We come from different corners of the globe and we each have a unique approach to our ‘Armenianism’ which is our cultural and ethnic identity,” I said.
“Is language a part of it? Can there be non-Armenian speaking Armenian?” he asks
“So it’s OK to lose some of the elements of your Armenianism and still be Armenian?”
“Unfortunately we have to adapt. Like a chameleon that changes colors to blend into its environment but doesn’t stop being a chameleon.”
“There’s different process. There’s integration, there is assimilation,” Richard says to clarify. In integration you identify as Armenian while maintaining all the values, whereas in assimilation you start to deny your identity and accept the host culture’s system. “You start to deny your identity as an Armenian (during assimilation) and you start to completely accept the American thing. You start to say things like ‘I like the food.’ You identify yourself with some symbols or some sort of memories.”
Most people’s first and most prevalent experience with an unfamiliar culture is through their cuisine. But this has also become a barometer for knowledge: how well do we really know a culture if all we can say about it is that “I like the food?” By the same token, how well does one know or identify with being Armenian if all they can say is “My parents/grandparents were Armenian and I really like the food?”
“Exactly, you are already assimilated with dolma (stuffed grape leaves),” Richard says and laughs. “So what values are you adhering to as an Armenian?”
He made his point. Although the discussion was lively, it was clear that we couldn’t specifically describe a set of values that can be identified as “Armenian.” It is to be another discussion for another day. Perhaps it will never be identified or perhaps we will create it as we go along on our journey: a subcategory of a larger topic of identity and finding our place in the world.