Auckland, New Zealand
Writing about my six-month journey to Armenia, with all its triumphs and hardships, terrified me in many ways. I had to give justice to my descriptions without being too one-sided. How could I articulate about my journey with Birthright Armenia for people to understand the true essence of this life-changing organisation and incredibly fascinating country? The lawyer in me told me to logically provide a pragmatic glimpse into my experience. The amateur chef in me told me to simply use the formula of a favourite Armenian recipe. That is what I will do.
Take dolma, a favorite Armenian dish, the taste of which raises a range of nostalgic emotions about our identity. It’s filling, warm and full of flavours. But not all recipes are the same as our dear mothers’ and grandmothers’. We come to Armenia expecting trays of dolma that are exactly as we imagined, but ten times more pleasurable. We believe that once we eat ‘real’ Armenian dolma, everything we were raised to believe about our Armenian identity is solidified. Once you eat this incredible pot of Armenian dolma, you believe that you are Armenian and this is your birthright. But reality is very different. Once you finally take a bite, it is not like you imagined. It’s cold, wet, and extremely and offensively salty.
This long analogy comparing Armenia to dolma represents the shock many volunteers face when they first arrive to Armenia. Many, like me, feel a sense of loss of their childhood fantasies about their homeland. My expectations were more like a movie thinking I’d land and be welcomed by my people dancing in traditional Armenian dress, offering me soorj, cognac and ponchiks. But what I saw was a real country with real political, social and economic issues. The people have their own struggles, their own dreams of escaping. The country is like any other, it has not yet seen its best days, and there is a lot pain and anxiety embedded in its heart.
Realizing I could not change the perception of the people and their grim attitudes or even to help them understand why I believe in my homeland, I decided to be more realistic and learn from them, listen to them, and understand their story. What I learned has changed the fabric of my identity as an Armenian woman, possibly forever.
How did I do this and what did I learn? I learned to accept Armenia for its beauty and its ugliness. I learned to not expect perfection, but to seek the majestic from the imperfections. Upon leaving Armenia, I am more Armenian than I ever was, because I’d been immersed in the culture, and understood what it was like to be Armenian for me, not for anyone else. That formula I have discovered was personal.
My advice to any potential Birthrighter is to say “yes”, take chances, feel the fear and do it anyway. The latter led me to have the most eye-opening and joyful experiences of my life. My free and open attitude allowed me to meet and connect with locals, bond with fellow Birthrighters, and participate in activities never before imagined possible. I have never laughed more, cried more, given more genatses (toasts) or been more in awe of this great nation and its progression. The beauty of this country and its people subside the feelings of hurt and betrayal I felt at many aspects of the governance system in Armenia. I would soon forget the abusive taxi driver that scammed me earlier in the day, when a gentle, old lady tells me to put another layer of clothing on so I don’t catch a cold, a simple stranger, just because she cares. I forget the snide stares from onlookers directed at diasporan Armenians gallivanting in their streets, when I glimpse Mother Armenia at the top of Yerevan watching over us.
It is a real country with very real issues, no doubt about that. But if you look closer and deeper into the soul of Armenians and its surroundings, you’ll see the Armenia that I saw. I learned what it is to be Armenian for myself and to put faith in the future of Armenia. I learned to trust that the glimpse I have of my people and of the country exist beneath the layers of anger and anxiety they harbour. It is there, in its people, in its air, in the depths of the nation’s soul. You just have to look for it. Armenia still has its essence of laughter, hospitality, strength and love, with the people as its heartbeat. Armenia, my Motherland. And one day to be my permanent home.