My father once told me that he wouldn’t leave Armenia even if the most prestigious galleries in the West were to invite him to run their shows. Not even if he could speak at openings and write his books in English. “I don’t understand how a person can leave his homeland,” he told me over steaks in New York, where my mother and I had settled after we had joined the purported eight hundred thousand Armenians in the post-Soviet exodus to opportunity. (I’m not sure if the irony made itself known to him as he spent the last moments of his life in a hospital in Europe because our motherland had no chance of saving him, despite his scroll-long list of contributions to her own well-being and prosperity.)
He told me he understood that it hadn’t been my choice to leave, but that I owed it to my homeland to return when I was old enough to make my own choices, and America had no more thrills left to offer. Later that evening, he walked around our Upper West Side apartment, making particularly pronounced stops in front of self-portraits by my first American love. “He’s a gifted artist,” he said. “But why do you need to be with a black man?” When my father died, I prayed for forgiveness for being relieved that he had left the earth a few short months before I became a mother. There was nothing I hadn’t or couldn’t have taken from my father except his rejection of my son on account of his blood and skin.
I’ve spent years tangled up in a tug of war between my roots and aspirations. In some moments I am consumed by my Armenian-ness. No, I am nothing like Kardashian, not for my curves, not for my dark hair and big eyes. No, we are not a part of Russia. No, we are not Romanian, or Albanian. No, we are not in Asia. Yes, I am Caucasian, as in from the mountains of the Caucasus. Yes, I am Armenian. Yes, I long for our ancient churches and endless mountains, for the taste of our lavash, our apricots, tomatoes, figs, dates, and mulberries, for the sounds of our tongue and melodies of our doodook. Yes, I want to show my husband and children where I am from.
In other moments, I am ejected from this part of my self by forces of incomprehensible hate stemming from the ignorance of my people. No, I am not ashamed to have married a black man. No, I do not feel guilty for having adopted a Jamaican child when there are so many orphans in Armenia. No, I don’t lament that my children are not pureblooded Armenians because, no, my greatest duty to my people has nothing to do with what blood flows in my children’s veins. Yes, I am American. Yes, I braid my hair. Yes, I love to speak Ebonics. Yes, I do touch my children when I am bathing them, and no, I don’t hesitate to kiss them. (And did you really just ask me that?) No, I don’t want to bring my husband and children to a place that will point fingers, hiss, whisper, demand explanations of choices that were mine to make and no one’s to question.
The American in me wants to crawl into isolation, but the Armenian in me keeps setting tables. The American tells me to save some money, while the Armenian insists that life’s too short not to live it all up. The American says, “Let your kids make choices, set them free, let them be.” The Armenian rolls her eyes and says, “Are you kidding me?” On most days, the two don’t hesitate to head-butt enough times to give me a real headache.
What does it mean to be either of these things? What does it mean to be both? And what does it mean that lately, most times in jest and sometimes as a matter of fact, people say that I am Jamaican, and I don’t object? Sergey Parajanov–whom I find fascinating for reasons ranging from his art to his sexuality to his humor, and the way he made me laugh while I sat in his lap on his balcony in Tbilisi, breath taken by all the costumes, collages, and this and that thing bound to find its place in a work of art–said, “I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine, and will die in Armenia.” He wanted to die in the land that claimed his blood. I often remember this and think, “I was born in Armenia, live in America, and will die in Jamaica.” I’m not sure where that leaves the head-butting between the Armenian and the American.
Must I belong to my birthland? Can I truly belong in my adoptive home? What does it mean to belong to a place? Does one ever belong unequivocally? Is the latter a blessing or a curse?
Most of the time, I stop pulling and letting myself be pulled, and I rest securely in a place that recognizes no borders between bloodlines and shades of skin color. I am safe here, no matter the pulling and tugging all around.
But what will it mean for my son to carry an Armenian last name, but not a drop of Armenian blood? What will it mean for him to know the history of us, but not a thing about his ancestry? And what will it mean for my daughter to be half Armenian, half Jamaican, the only one in our family born in America? Where will my children belong?