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What’s in a 'hye'-phenated name: Making sense of the kaleidoscope that is Armenian identity

August 28, 2019

Analyses

By Lilly Torosyan

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What’s in a 'hye'-phenated name: Making sense of the kaleidoscope that is Armenian identity

Are you of Armenian descent and live in the United States? Do you define yourself as Armenian-American? The difference between these questions may seem subtle, but it sparks two radically divergent conversations, one perhaps more hostile than the other. If you’ve ever been personally attacked by the Regina George of Armenian Identity Labels, you may find some comfort in the following recount.

Disclaimer: This article touches upon Armenianness as it pertains to diasporans living in the U.S. Those born and living in Armenia and other parts of the world may have different experiences and approaches to this question that the author does not feel she can speak to, though some of the themes and observations may overlap.

To hy(e)phenate or to not hy(e)phenate

At any given time, every human being juggles multiple “identities.” Labels like “coffee drinker” and “IT technician” may change many times throughout the course of our lives, while others, like ethnicity, tend to remain a consistent part of who and/or what we are. There is no magic formula for how this process occurs—it just does.

As diasporans, we all, at some point or another, encounter a barrage of conflicting responses to the Golden Question of identity and belonging. In the U.S., for example, many diasporans use the hyphenated “Armenian-American” to denote their dual ethnonational identities, which they hope will help them maintain our unique culture outside of our homeland. We tend to think of this group as the default representation of Armenians living in the U.S.

“The Hyphenated Identity.” (Illustration: Gia Rowley, via tuftsobserver.org)“The Hyphenated Identity.” (Illustration: Gia Rowley, via tuftsobserver.org)

But what about those who choose to forgo this label? Why do they do it, and where does that place them as nameless Armenians in this otar (foreign) world? To answer this, I, a self-identified Armenian-American woman, want to tell you a story about how an Irish teenage boy in suburban Connecticut opened my eyes to a different perspective on this “hyphen issue.”


Black or white

One of my favorite courses in high school was Modern American Literature. The instructor, Ms. Le Coutre, was as kind and eccentric an educator as they come. She was also the first (and only) teacher I ever had who assigned work by an Armenian. I can still remember the excitement I felt as I presented my report on the great Armenian-American playwright, novelist, and short story author, William Saroyan.

I had barely begun when Ms. Le Coutre chimed in to correct my pronunciation of “Sir-OI-yan.” I smiled before informing her that, in Armenian, the stress is on the last syllable, “Sar-o-YAN”. My teacher turned bright red; I, on the other hand, was proud—arrogant, even. Here was 15-year-old me, usurping the achievements of this great writer for myself and the collective Armenian-American community, while “educating” others in the process.

One day soon after, Ms. Le Coutre asked who among us identified as a hyphenated American. Of course, my hand shot up instinctively. One of my classmates, Michael, whose father lived in Ireland, hesitantly motioned his hand against his chest. I must not have been the only one who noticed because Ms. Le Coutre called on him to explain.

Michael was enthusiastic about his Irishness in a way that very few others around me were (including that lad in sixth grade.) Though we shared a few classes together, I didn’t know him well; one day after Spanish class, he was chomping on some gum—which, as we all know, was against the rules. He had just returned from visiting his father and had brought backpacks of the contraband from the homeland. I asked if I could have a stick and he coolly (and quite literally) threw an entire pack my way. Green gum from Ireland! I was giddy.

Back in English class, Michael was put on the spotlight. “I am Irish and I am American but I wouldn’t say that I am Irish-American. I don’t identify with the hyphen.” “Oh, and why not?” This was probably the first time he had ever encountered such a direct question about his ethnonational identity—and in public, no less. As a diasporan Armenian, I knew what a taxing question this was; I almost felt bad for Michael. After a long pause, he bluntly answered, “I just wouldn’t go around calling myself an Irish-American. I am an American of Irish descent.”

At the time, I brushed off Michael as naive; now, I wonder if maybe I was the one who had some learning to do.


Finding the gray area 

Among many, one stark difference between our two immigrant communities that I had neglected to realize is that the Irish are perhaps the most populous, visible ethnic group in the U.S. Instead of carrying his Irishness like a heavy potato sack, distributing spuds of his people’s culture to random passersby, Michael threw them—not potatoes, but shamrock green gum—and only whenever it suited him. The confidence he wielded in his chosen identity made teenage-me uncomfortable.

That is because Armenians are—barring a few areas—a nameless, faceless minority group for most people in this country. Growing up in an environment where my Armenianness was not only invisible by default, but mistaken for everything from Jewish to Latina to just about every Mediterranean country on the map, I seized every opportunity to inject my “unknown otherness” into my American world. When presenting on Saroyan that day, I felt like a little foot soldier for the Armenian Cause—doing my small part in promoting our culture and the achievements of our people to an audience that likely would have never encountered it otherwise. Michael, on the other hand, did not feel the same existential duty, but that did not make him any less of a proud Celtic son.

Over the years, I have learned to ease up on my internal tug-of-war battle, embracing the symbiosis of both aspects of my ethnonational identity without pretenses, obligations, or guilt. In turn, this has made my personal journey of learning and discovering Armenian culture and history much more enjoyable and fulfilling. And in this gray area, labeling can become a messy juggling act. Though I still disagree with Michael’s approach, I realize now that it was just as valid as mine and did not deserve to be brushed off or belittled—or even judged at all. Indeed, many diasporan Armenians feel similarly about their own identities.

The term The term The term "hyphenated American" was first published in 1889, and was commonly used as a derogatory term by 1904. In this cartoon from "Puck" (Aug. 9, 1899, by J. S. Pughe), Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks, "Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?"


It is no secret that our community can, at times, be quite hostile to these nuances. We have preserved and promoted our Armenianness (outside of the homeland) by adopting insular, and occasionally aggressive, tactics. While understandable, this has unfortunately led many otherwise-curious souls who do not fit the extreme definition of what an Armenian is (whatever that is) to turn away from connecting with, or learning more about, their Armenian identities. Perhaps by asking a different question, we can open up the conversation to all Armenians—regardless of identity or classification.

For some, the little “-” symbol is an important piece of their defining puzzle; for others, it is a limitation. Some change their minds throughout life’s journey, and others yet just never know what feels right for them. At h-pem, we welcome any and all who identify as Armenian or seek to learn more about “Armenianness” through art, history, music, language, and other cultural elements. We do not pass judgment on anyone for where they may be in this deeply personal journey.

So, whether you use the hyphen or not, we hope that you will stick around for some entertainment, education, and excitement. Our website is your space—quite literally, your “stage”—to delve deep and find some answers. We believe that, together, we can move beyond the stigma to validate, make sense of, and embrace all of these differing, sometimes convoluted, shape-shifting identities.

Have a story to share about your journey or experience as an Armenian in the diaspora? Send it our way!   

Armenian-Americans aren't unique in this regard—several groups throughout the U.S. (as well as around the world, of course), deal with the “hyphen issue" in different ways.  Check out our video section below for two perspectives on the subject. The first is a spoken word performance by Nigerian-born American poet, teacher, activist, and entrepreneur Uchechi Kalu, while the second is a trailer for an upcoming film entitled "HYPHENAMERICAN."     

Video

  • "Hyphen American" by Uchechi Kalu

    (Video: Uchechi Kalu YouTube page)

  • "HYPHENAMERICAN" (Extended trailer)

    (Video: Chipotle Films YouTube page)

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