Notes on the Armenian American Identity


My great-grandfather was born in the Ottoman Empire. He had a business, a family and a community. He fled to avoid the massacre that would become known as the Armenian Genocide, which officially began on April 24, 1915.

Of course he could have stayed in his home with his family and surrounded by his community had he and his neighbors converted to Islam. Had he given up his Armenian identity, he could have lived comfortably and probably expanded his personal estate.

Had he converted he would’ve saved my grandfather the trouble of leaving Syria for a better life in Lebanon. He would’ve saved my father the trouble of fleeing Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War for a better life in America. He would’ve saved me the anxiety of this American life.

Was this Armenian identity worth all the pain and suffering? Was it worth over 1.5 million lives?

We Armenian Americans have a great opportunity for self-reflection today. The centennial of the Armenian Genocide is fast approaching and we have a lot of explaining to do to ourselves.

For example, here are some personal questions I struggle with. Why do I feel guilty when I speak English with my grandparents? Or why do I feel less Armenian when I don’t go to church on Sunday? And why were my dates with non-Armenian girls more successful than my dates with Armenian girls?

My hunch is providence had something to do with my dating life. But when it comes to the Armenian language and religion, there are no miracles involved. There’s just an outdated mentality. There’s an archaic definition of the Armenian identity that haunts, or at the very least complicates, the lives of many Armenian Americans.

In its most basic form this archaic definition of the Armenian identity revolves around our language and our Christianity, the two factors that have shaped our community’s worldviews for centuries.

I have nothing against the Armenian language and the Armenian Orthodox religion. I’m not advocating for its destruction. (Without Armenian Church service, where else would I go to get religiously high from incense?)

Plus, it’s time for Armenian language education to enter the 21st century. Armenian lessons on Duolingo.com anybody? (I’m looking for help to get that project launched. Suggestions?)

I’m advocating for a reformation of our understanding of the Armenian identity. Religion and language shouldn’t be at the center of that identity any more. After all, we aren’t in the Middle East anymore.

This is America! I don’t have to speak Armenian to be Armenian. I don’t have to go to church to be Armenian. I don’t have to marry an Armenian to be Armenian.

At the heart of our identity has to be a commitment to the Armenian cause, that cause being the advancement of Armenians by every legal method, indiscriminate of their or their parents’ birthplace, in whatever industry or field, wherever they may be in the world.

I am Armenian because I am committed to the success of all Armenian Americans (Armenian being the adjective and American the noun), the progress of the Armenian American community and American society as a whole.

Enough with the squabbles! We shouldn’t judge ourselves by an archaic definition of what it means to be Armenian. It’s time to set aside the minor differences, embrace our diversity, and present the world with a united Armenian American front. It’s time to move forward together.

So, yes, our forefathers made the right choices. It was worth the migrations. It was worth the nights in Lebanese bomb shelters. It was worth coming to America. It is worth this American life and everyone thereafter.

What we do here, as Armenian Americans, will echo around the world. As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide approaches let’s seize the opportunity to redefine our Armenian identity. Let’s capture the fighting spirit of our ancestors, who commendably risked death in the face of forced conversion, and carry that spirit forward to build a brighter future.

Kevork Kurdoghlian is a third year political science major at UCLA and education reporter for the CV Weekly. He can be reached at