A Generational Question

The late Marilyn Arshagouni with her grand-daughters, Ani and Marie.
The late Marilyn Arshagouni with her grand-daughters, Ani and Marie.

The late Marilyn Arshagouni with her grand-daughters, Ani and Marie.

Barnard College of Columbia University Class of 2021
Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Program – Summer 2017

“If you don’t speak Armenian, are you really Armenian?”

On our walk to the ANCA offices under the warm D.C. sun, my peers were debating this question loudly. Passionate exclamations ensued, involving the assertion that losing one’s ability to speak Armenian was equivalent to assimilating altogether: ignorant and morally reprehensible. I walked along quietly, pondering the various assertions of my peers. I appreciated where these arguments came from. Part of me agreed, part of me felt ashamed, and part of me began to question the validity of my Armenian-ness. Little did I know, this was the same question my grandmother, as well as many other members of my family, have faced over the years.

I am fifth generation Armenian-American on my mom’s side, and third on my dad’s. My ancestors in the U.S. all managed to find marriageable Armenians. And so, I am considered by some to be “100% Armenian,” or “full Armenian.” That is, before they learn that my knowledge of the Armenian language is introductory at best.

My maternal grandmother, Marilyn Arshagouni, was born in 1935 to one of the earliest Armenian families to settle in Los Angeles – a shocking fact, given that the current Armenian population there is almost half a million. In childhood, she didn’t know many other Armenian families, and the language, while spoken by her father’s family, was not spoken in her home. Despite this lack of knowledge of Armenian, she was smart and hardworking, becoming the first junior at UCLA to be elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors society, and later graduating with highest honors and a BA in English. The English language was her first love, and she went on to study English at graduate school.

When my grandmother married my grandfather in 1956, he began bringing her closer to Armenian culture. He was born and raised in the Armenian diaspora in Greece, and so he was a native speaker and had a strong sense of community. Once my grandmother met Richard Hovannisian, a graduate student of Armenian history at UCLA, she furthered her great, though untraditional, contributions to the Armenian community. She helped edit his dissertation, which would become the classic Armenia on the Road to Independence. She then went on to edit the first volumes of his four-volume History of the Republic of Armenia.

For over 25 years my grandmother taught English and history at the Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian High School in Encino, CA. And she and my grandfather were on the Armenian Monument Council that established the first genocide monument on public land in California.

Given her great influence on the Armenian community, I was stunned when I learned the accusations that she bore the brunt of as an Armenian born in the U.S. It is an accusation that both of my parents have heard countless times. It is one to which I am just now being exposed.
My ancestors have lived in the U.S. for over a hundred years. Despite this, my love of Armenian culture is strong, and my yearning to give back to my community even stronger. Ours is an important history and an important story. Each of our experiences is different. Some of us grew up in the midst of an Armenian-speaking community. Others, like my grandmother and me, grew up surrounded at home by an incredible library of Armenian books and culture and friends.

Although my grandmother was never fluent in Armenian as a child, her immersion into the community led her to pick up a considerable amount of the language. It was the same with my mother. I expect that it will be the same for me. I still plan to study Armenian in college. But, as I do so, I will remember that our goal as a diaspora should be inclusiveness, as a nod to our shared, bitter, and rocky history. It is counterproductive to shun those who have not had the privilege of a strong cultural or linguistic upbringing. As Yeghishe Charents, the famous Armenian writer and poet, wrote, “Oh, Armenian people, your only salvation lies in the power of your unity.”

And so, I disagree with the assertion that one must speak Armenian to truly be Armenian. If that were the case, my grandmother would be an outcast in our greater community, despite her countless contributions. As members of a diaspora, exposure to the Armenian language isn’t all that unites us. It is our love of community, our blood, our shared history and future, and our determination to help in any way we can. I am beginning to learn that. Although I will continue to face questions by my peers about the validity of my Armenian identity, I embrace my ethnicity wholeheartedly. And as my grandmother did, I will continue to do my part, not only as an Armenian, but as an Armenian in America.


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  1. Raffi Simonian said:

    I agree whole heartedly with you Marie. Speaking Armenian does not qualify you to be a good Armenian. It is your Armenian heart and how you would like to serve your Armenian community. I know many Armenians who visit Armenia but they may not have the desire to go back. To them Armenia, is just another tourist destination. But those who have that Armenian heart would want to visit Armenia every year, because it is our homeland, family and community. it belongs to us…

  2. Beth Broussalian said:

    Great article! There has been a lot of discussion surrounding this article on Facebook.

  3. State of Emergency said:

    The real question should be “if you don’t live in Armenia, are you really Armenian?” Because it does no one any good to live outside of their homeland and only dream about it. The homeland is a tangible reality. It can and should be the home for any Armenian wanting to have an Armenian existence in this life.

  4. Lori said:

    Here’s a question. What’s the point of being an Armenian who speaks Armenian if that person doesn’t add anything except a number? I’d prefer to have one Marilyn Arshagouni over 1000 Armenians who speak Armenian and contribute nothing to society or our nation. Your grandmother wasn’t only an outstanding Armenian but an amazing human. She enriched our history and educated generations including me. Your beautifully written article would make her beam with pride.

  5. Masis said:

    Marie, I applaud your patriotism, concern and commitment to Armenian Culture. In your life opportunities will exist for you to learn the language. I agree with inclusion instead of exclusion for our fragile population. As a community, we must do more to teach the language to our compatriots. Informal home classes is one such example.

    Questioning “Armenianness” because someone doesn’t live there or is from one or another place is absurd. Fate (aka Genocide) has us scattered all over the world. What’s worse is that our homeland has become tainted by politics. It makes no sense for our economically challenged nation to have a president who made the most of any leader in the world–to the tune of $230 Million. And he didn’t do that by digging ditches. Elections are bought. Small businesses are physically threatened by big businesses, who have direct connections with the government. Azeri’s kill a young Armenian or two a week; these murders to unanswered because our leaders fear their opportunities of tainted income would be compromised. In all, the previous Soviet system has compromised all of the principles and values that we hold to be Armenian. They want the Diaspora to give financial assistance but not to meddle in improving the tainted system there. The government can only then make the Diasporans feel like true Armenians.

    While I commend the masses who live there, the government must to away with corruption and include Diasporan Armenians in the government–people who have a solid, virtuous upbringing and sufficient wealth and won’t be a parasite on the population.