Shards and Tiles

There once was a time when I would tell people I was Armenian, just as soon as I’d shared my name and repeated it at least twice to allow the American tongue before me to wrap itself around the way my name was meant to be spoken. Sometimes, I’d mention Armenia in response to a comment about my exotic name, or my exotic accent, or the exotic jewelry around my neck, fingers, and wrists that told stories of my no doubt exotic ancestors. But most of the time, I would weave my Armenian-ness into an acquaintance that was just being born, whether or not a mention of my nationality was warranted. After all, to claim to have met me, let alone to have come to know a thing about me, was to know that I was a daughter of genocide, of survival, of mountains, and of a tongue more ancient than anything my new home could claim as ancient.

This isn’t so anymore. These days, I mention that I am Armenian only when someone, usually a student, asks me where I’m from. Inquiries about my national origin have decreased dramatically over the last decade, either because my accent has softened from American inflections, or because people have become more politically correct, or less emotionally engaged, as the case may well be. I say I’m from Armenia, a country so small that it’s impossible to find it on its own, without relying on her territorially and, therefore, otherwise more prominent neighbors. More people than you might think make the mistake of uttering something along the lines of “Oh, like Kim Kardashian!” I treat this comment as the unforgivable offense that it is: I roll my eyes, and say nothing. For, to suggest that we are of the same kind is to imply that blood is enough to decide one’s allegiance to a nation. It is precisely this that I have found to be untrue, as my Armenian-ness has relentlessly and steadily shrunk to accommodate the many parts that have come together to morph into a self composed of shards and tiles, and struggling desperately to merge into a tolerable whole.

No longer do I roll the ‘r’ in my name. No longer do I mind foregoing the emphatic pronunciation of the vowels that make my name sound like a proclamation, instead, tasting them on my tongue like bites of cotton candy. And like too much sugar melting onto the tongue, so does softening one’s name make one lightheaded and unanchored. Sometimes, I turn to myself and say, “Why did I choose to speak my name that way?” So as not to inconvenience my interlocutor? Because it would take a few more moments than I cared to spare to help the person say it right? Or is it because the melody of my name as it should be uttered no longer speaks of who I am?

Whatever the reason, the way I speak my name these days says nothing of where I come from. Nor do I any longer turn each family dinner and gathering of friends into a one woman show of lines spoken exclusively as toasts to endless shots of vodka, and dancing so fierce that it would turn the living room walls into rocky mountains, and the floor beneath my feet into the land that birthed me when no one had wanted me to be born. My children have never seen me dance to an Armenian melody. If you had told me a decade ago that my future children would know not an inkling of their mother’s Armenian-ness, speak not a word in their mother’s tongue, sing not a single song of my people’s freedom, I would have treated this idea as the unforgivable offense that it would have been: I would have rolled my eyes and said nothing.

What will my daughter make of herself with a mother who didn’t speak to her in her native tongue? Will she, too, solicit the help of a therapist, as she struggles to put together pieces of herself she doesn’t know enough to identify and place where each belongs? Will she accuse me, as I have often accused my own mother, for not having been given enough to decipher her self? Will she be broken? Fragmented? Or will she be as whole as she is now, at ease with exactly the person she is, content with all things and people, and never not herself?

My son carries my name, the -ian at the end proclaiming him as an Armenian, when most people with whom the mother who gave him this name grew up would reject him, if not out of hate, then out of ignorance. (How often these two are intertwined so tightly it seems they could never exist apart from one another.) How will he grow into his name? Will it ever be anything to him but a reminder of the family name he sacrificed for mine? Will the name I gave him ever not speak of the family he had to lose to give me a family? Will the sacrifice of his name have been worth it? Will he know, someday, that when I had brought him home, too many of my people had asked questions that aimed to remind me not that I could have adopted a child from Armenia, but that I shouldn’t have adopted one that was black? Will he know how to stand tall when the person interviewing him for a job admits he can’t conceal the shock of meeting someone who is obviously not the Armenian the name on the resume had proclaimed him to be?

Will either of my children ever understand that I severed my ties with the land of my birth to protect and preserve their honor? Will my reasons for untethering myself from the motherland matter to them, when all that will matter is whether they know enough of me to know themselves?

Where is the thread that brings these musings into a whole and gives them purpose?

That’s just the thing: They’re shards and tiles, struggling desperately to merge into a tolerable whole. Perhaps this is all they will ever be. But in the name of the most audacious hope–the one that promises peace to the mind and soul–should someone think to ask if I feel whole enough to love myself, I will say only–not yet.

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