Twenty-three years ago today, my mother and I arrived in New York City, joining the purported 800,000 Armenians who left the homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union in search of tangible independence. Our own hard earned sovereignty had yielded nothing by way of providing opportunity. We were now poorer, less secure, and desperate for a change we knew we couldn’t rely on. So, we took matters into our own hands, and changed our passports, tongues, and allegiances. Some of us were fortunate enough not to travel blindly, our exodus directed at a final destination where we would unite with family who hadn’t waited for the Iron Curtain to fold before they would flee into the other side.
Twenty-three years ago, I thought my life would resemble those of the teenagers in Beverly Hills, 90210, one of the shows that had crept into our lives through the ether. Now that the government had nothing at stake in terms of making us fear and hate our age-long enemy, we were allowed to get a glimpse of what we thought was real America: High schools on beaches, kids driving convertibles, premarital sex, faded jeans, sneakers, fast food, and love triangles.
Twenty-three years ago, when I first set foot on this island and settled into a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with my mother, grandmother, and great aunt, I wouldn’t have imagined that I would attend a private school for girls, graduate with honors from college, receive a graduate degree from an Ivy League university, wait tables for ten years, fold my apron in exchange for a desk at which to take notes on American foreign policy, travel to dozens of countries representing the interests of my adoptive home, and leave the adventures of expat life to become a public school teacher of my third language to thousands of New York City’s kids.
Twenty-three years ago, it was neither my plan nor my dream to adopt a child from Jamaica, make a home in the most diverse borough in the City, marry an immigrant from a country far from my own, and give birth to a Jamaican-Armenian child who speaks neither my own nor her father’s language, knows nothing of life but that people of different languages, races, cultures, beliefs, and genes can be a family, and represents everything that should be real America.
Twenty-three years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that because the World Wide Web would give people a space without borders, it would be possible to connect, to learn, to share, to find friends and a partner for life, to organize, to protest, to demand, to gather, to educate. I wouldn’t have imagined that I could see live footage of what is happening back in my birth country, or on the West Coast, or somewhere in Africa or Antarctica, as things unfold, as seen by ordinary people, all of whom are photographers, reporters, writers, and have each other for an audience, recording human experience and history for all to know.
Twenty-three years ago, I didn’t know that the poor are kept poor in America, that the sick are made to ail, that doors are slammed in millions of faces, and that only a minuscule fraction of the people living in this land have enough money and power to have their voices heard, and to be unequivocally protected by the laws of our land. I didn’t know that this was the land of the greedy and the home of the selfish. I didn’t know that guns matter more than children’s lives, that racism fuels policies and practices, and that a just America is nothing but an empirically tested oxymoron.
Twenty-three years ago, I didn’t know what I have since come to see as the great American truth: That this is a land of many dichotomies, one of which trumps all others in how precisely it defines what America has always been and is destined to always be. The everlasting American tale is one of Greed and Hope. In every chapter of its history, this country has always told the story of these two forces chasing, sparring, overpowering one another, clashing and crashing into each other. And although the Greedy hold all the wealth and power and always look for ways to grab more, it is always the Hopeful that persevere through even the fiercest of battles. There are those who know America has never been true to the ideals it proclaims, but that it can and should be a country all of whose children are treated equally and fairly. In every chapter, we lift our voices, speak truth, and demand justice. We are the hope of America, and we always rise.