It took me only thirty minutes to get to Armenia from California. How? The Concorde is no longer available, agreed! And Scotty didn’t beam me up, nor did I teleport; though I believe we are in an age when this technology will soon be available.
Do you give up guessing yet? It was very simple. Mary Terzian, the author of two books, The Immigrants’ Daughter and Politically Homeless, invited me to AGBU Hye Geen’s presentation of Globalization and Challenges with Armenian Women in Pasadena, California, and I went. The topic intrigued me. What has globalization to do with the Armenian females, and if it has, then it must surely affect me too, though I carry zero Armenian blood.
As soon as I was through the doorway I swam in a sea of Armenians—tiny ones, large ones, tall and short ones, and bearded ones, though they were vastly outnumbered by their bustier counterparts. Armenian language floated in the crowded auditorium. I wouldn’t have been more startled had someone greeted me with “Welcome to Armenia” and demanded to see my passport. The only indication that I was at the right place was a table manned—or more correctly womanned—by two Armenians, its surface decked with Mary’s books.
I was swiftly delivered to Mary, who assured me that English would be the language of use in the presentation.
I sat down and soaked it all in. There were about a dozen round tables filled with mostly women, totaling around 60 – 80 women heads. Three or four men dotted the room. One, like a butterfly, stopped at different tables to dip his hand in the grasping hands of women, making them feel welcome and beautiful. One man sat morosely in a group of women, most probably to prevent his wife from disclosing all the family’s secrets in her high-spirited socialization. Another man busied himself around with the video equipment. The fourth and last one helped adjust Mary’s microphone when she came up.
She opened the hot topic with her measured speech, beginning by defining the meaning of globalization, and confirmed its reach in the modern age. To emphasize her points, Mary rolled her tongue and delivered a long sentence in her native language. I could see the effect of this string of Armenian words on her audience, for people began to let out a collective hum and laughter erupted in different corners of the auditorium. Whatever she just said had won approval. People clapped. So I clapped too, wondering at the meaning of the foreign words that carried the power to move her audience, to break the silence, words that unravel feelings in the women who so far remained subdued, even after they were reminded to take responsibility for their own lives—to be outspoken and take their identities seriously so that they should never again be addressed as their father’s daughter or husband’s wife.
The second and last speaker of the day was Dr. Nelly Kazman. She commanded the room with a microphone in hand. Behind her was a large screen illuminated with a PowerPoint presentation synchronized to her talk. It made following her thought much easier, for I took rapid notes, musing on several points and sometimes losing myself in the process.
Dr. Kazman approached her topic with a genuine enthusiasm. “Globalization is here to stay,” she repeated what Mary and the woman who introduced the talk before her had said. She built upon Mary’s idea of globalization—how it helped remove the barriers of commerce like tariffs and across border good exchanges—to embark first on the positives of globalization’s impacts, namely the need for a global language, cooperation between countries, political integration, and higher learning standards and competence. However, she warned, with globalization, one would soon lose all national identities, ethnic cultures, and sense of selves, etc.
She raised three questions—What, So What, and Now What—and used them to navigate her presentation, bringing into focus her topic and driving it home to her audience. She brought up the differences among the generations of Armenian women–from the traditional to the Baby Boomers and the Millennials—and their challenges, namely how to preserve their national identity against the mainstream’s, itself would be more and more globalized and all-encompassing to the point of complete dilution then evaporation. The future would no longer wear any set identity nor have any cultural variation.
I took copious notes, omitting the word “Armenian” for my own application. Her analyses of the impacts of globalization on today’s women and her suggestions on how to be prepared for the challenge of our time were all based on sound logic and thorough studies. She briefly mentioned the upcoming Gen Z and threw up her hands, laughed, and said, “I won’t go there. Stay tuned!”
Here I sat, a stranger among Armenians, thinking how odd I must look and how alien in a homogeneous group of people. I felt acutely out of place when some of the debates were reverted back to Armenian, their language of choice which aptitude they had mastered and nuances they fully grasped. However, this was not the first time I had subjected myself to a crowd like this. I had been among Vietnamese and felt totally lost, unable to associate. I had taken meal in a group of Indians and was left invisible because I did not look and talk the same way as the majority. I had been to writers’ conference and struggled to participate because I was definitely an odd sample among Caucasians and veteran writers. I had learned not to let being outnumbered bother me. I had in me this sadistic pleasure to be a dog among cats. Completely ignored and left alone, I was free to use all my senses to observe and listen when all around me, people forgot themselves in active socialization.
Didn’t Dr. Kazman just remind her audience to keep an open mind and be adaptive and flexible in all situations while juggling the Me identity with the Other identity, whether it be American, Armenian, Vietnamese, Indian, or woman?
I was deep in that frame of mind, so enthusiastic to learn and discover about this Armenian world around me and globalization, when the presentation ended with a Q&A session. I was about to tiptoe out when the first question was asked.
“I was born in Georgia. When someone asked what I am, I always said I am American. Then when I said my parents are Armenian I was told, ‘Then you’re not American, but Armenian American.’ I beg to differ. I am an American of Armenian descent but I am not an Armenian American.”
The room grew quiet for a few minutes then hands shot up. One woman replied. “I know why you say you are not Armenian American. Because once upon a time, being Armenian in America is a bad thing. Like being black. People changed their names.”
The Georgian-born responded. “That’s not it. I totally disagree. This concept of African American, Latin American, all that was started after the Civil War. To me, you either are American or you are not.”
Someone else stood up. “American is a mindset. There is no American ethnicity. What’s so unique about America is it’s a melting pot of multitude ethnicities. But you have to come from somewhere, and you are not being disloyal when you say you are Armenian American.”
Mary, who sat next to me, leaned over. “Do you experience the same with Vietnamese?”
I grinned. I was glad to find that I wasn’t the only one to suffer an identity crisis and feel alienated at times among my own people. And let’s not bring politics or religions in the discussion.
It will be a steep climb uphill. But it is here to stay.