Friday, June 2, 2017

I seek a meadow


Turkey, 1910

At the end of the 19th century, a string of eight Armenian villages dotted the slopes of Musa Dagh - the Mountain of Moses - on the southern tip of Turkey near the ancient city of Antioch. Musa Dagh is so close to Syria that you can see it from the upper slopes, and wealthier residents used to take short trips to Aleppo just as often as they would head to Antioch. Of course, what was Syria, what was Turkey and what was Hatay (another word for Antioch, also called Antakya) was not a clear boundary. Reflecting on what life must have been like there a century ago, I can't be sure that a trip to Aleppo from Musa Dagh or Antioch was even considered an international trip. Now, it certainly is one: one you are not allowed, or not advised, to make. 

Musa Dagh is dry and pleasant, its roads shaded by orange and pomegranate trees. To one side there is a view of the Mediterranean. Its stone houses are picturesque, and life there was once quiet, as it is now. The area around Antioch and the mountain is dotted with Greek and Roman ruins, in fact, today Antioch has a fine sculpture and mosaic museum archiving this heritage. 

In one of the more distant villages, one well-to-do family made their money raising silkworms. They were Armenians, and therefore Christian, but in other ways they were not that culturally different from their Turkish or Syrian neighbors. They drank the same tea, they played the same endless games of backgammon, they wore similar clothing, they ate similar food, and they could all communicate. The Armenians were not necessarily treated well under the Ottomans; regardless, the family of silk-growers prospered. 

A few hours away in Tarsus, another well-to-do family was raising a small brood of children, including a strong-willed, handsome young girl named Verdjin. 

Verdjin was born right at the turn of the century. Around 1910, when she was 10 years old, a strong-jawed young student named Mihran, who was a family friend, asked her father Hagop for permission to marry her when she came of age. Looking back in time, this seems so odd as to be scandalous, but in Turkey in 1910 it would have been quite normal. What was strange, in fact, was that rather than grant his daughter's hand, Hagop insisted that the marriage could only happen if Verdjin herself acquiesced when she was older. 

Of course, Mihran was one of the sons of that silkworm-raising family on Musa Dagh. Having no interest in the family business, he went to Tarsus, finished school and joined the military. 

Throughout this time, the government of Turkey was doing its best to ignore the "Armenian Question" - that is, what to do about the promised reforms of their treatment of the Armenian minority that they had no intention of implementing, and how best to connect the Turkic-speaking peoples across Central Asia - a connection they felt was blocked by the existence of non-Turkic Armenia. 

Five years later, with the Ottoman Empire on its way out and the Young Turks on their way in, both Verdjin and Mihran's lives were upended. The Young Turks, led by Enver, Djemal and Talaat Pasha, instituted a policy of 'Turkification' whose main aim was to solve the 'Armenian question' by ridding Turkey of its Armenian population. In short, a genocide. It seems clear that their hatred for minorities was primarily ethnic, and they were working from a mindset influenced by Western Europe of what it means to be a modern nation rather than an empire: one nation, one people, no room for minorities. Of course, in 2017 this is clearly problematic, a recipe for genocide. At the time, it was a modern way of thinking. 

It's not clear to what extent religious hatred fueled the three pashas' thirst for Armenian blood, but it seems likely that they endeavored to promote religious animosity in order to get as many people to agree with their plans for 'ethnic cleansing' as possible. Remember that the killing continued under Kemal Ataturk - and Djemal, Talaat and Enver Pasha's death sentences for their perpetration of the genocide overturned - and it is often observed that Ataturk's religious beliefs were unclear, and he may well have been quietly atheist. On the local level, Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks had lived as neighbors for centuries - it's hard to turn someone against people of another ethnicity when you know people of that group. It's easier to turn people against their neighbors by engineering a campaign of religious fanaticism. 

When the Young Turks came to power, Armenians celebrated the ideal of the new republic with their Turkish friends. Soon after, they were told that they had to leave their ancestral homes 'for their own safety'. They were marched into the desert and, if they did not die along the way from starvation, fatigue, disease or raids that were not only ignored by their Turkish guards but were actively encouraged by them, were put in disease-ridden refugee camps in the most inhospitable parts of the desert with no food or water supply: these camps were designed to result in as many deaths as possible. 

Verdjin's parents decided it was no longer safe in Tarsus. Their first choice was Cyprus, but refugees were no longer being admitted there. They left instead for Izmir, once known as Smyrna, just as ancient as Tarsus, Antioch or Aleppo. 

Mihran, on hearing that Armenians were being systematically massacred and the children of his village being taken and sold to Turkish and Kurdish families, left his post in the military. He traveled around the countryside and, using the influence of his position in the military - and likely the fear that his uniform engendered in the families he visited - negotiated the return of every single child. While his neighbors and family (including, possibly, his father) were on Musa Dagh fighting in the 53-day resistance, he was off the mountain, doing his best to continue the fight. 

He had been hiding in a metal-lined barrel meant for olives, and survived. 

In Izmir, around the time of the great fire of 1922, Verdjin's family decided that Turkey was no longer safe for them, and decided to leave for Greece. They could have left immediately, but it was a Sunday, and Hagop refused to 'travel on the Sabbath'. His wife, Anna, could not persuade him. That night, on the eve of their departure, Turkish officers forced the hotel to turn over the name of every Armenian on the guest registry. As the women and children hid, terrified, all of the men, including Hagop, were rounded up and taken away. Typically at this time this would mean they were shot, and their bodies dumped in a mass grave. There was no way for Verdjin or her family to know if this had been the family patriarch's fate, however, he was never seen or heard from again. It is clear enough. 

The next day, the surviving members of Verdjin's family left for Athens, where they became refugees. 

Mihran was still at large. The children whose return he'd secured had been taken with the help of an Armenian family that had betrayed their neighbors and friends, and they were now out for him. At one point they came through a village where Mihran was hiding, emptying rounds of ammunition into every structure they could find, with the intent of killing him. Satisfied that he could not have survived such an onslaught, they left. 

This Armenian family called on the local military to find and arrest Mihran, most likely sending him to his death in one of the desert marches. The Turkish officer who found him walked up and, instead of shooting him or placing him under arrest, embraced him. They had gone to school together. Mihran was free to go. 

Soon after this, he decided it was time to leave Turkey. He sought to find the woman he'd asked to marry so many years ago, when both knew only prosperous and comfortable circumstances. She would have been in her early twenties then, certainly old enough to decide for herself if she wanted to tie her life to his.

* * *

Athens, 1924

Verdjin was living in Kokkinia, an area in Piraeus that, at that time, was sparsely populated and well outside of Athens. She lived in the refugee camp with her family, working in the refugee hospital for extra rations for the family. Around this time, a group of European missionaries donated the money and material to build a small church and missionary school - it was erected in 1924 and became the Armenian Evangelical Church. At the time, Kokkinia had over 100,000 Armenians - some attending the Evangelical Church, others attending the Orthodox Church just across the street. 

There were many refugee camps in the area - the Greek government took in the refugees but purposely separated them so that they would not form an 'Armenian ghetto'. 

Mihran searched for over a year before he located Verdjin. When he finally found her, instead of coming to her directly, he took a long and likely thoughtful stroll in the meadow above the refugee camp where she was living. He picked a bouquet of violets, went to the newly-built missionary school, and convinced the students there to find and bring Verdjin. It was April Fool's Day.

"Come meet our new friend!" the students said as they ran to Verdjin, who was working at the hospital.

Verdjin, quick and rational, initially refused to go with them. She was too busy; she had work to do, and her family needed the rations. They persisted. Perhaps this seemed odd enough to be worth investigating - what "new friend" is worth bothering someone this much to come meet? Perhaps she was nearly done with her work after all. Perhaps she figured this would be a quick trip and she could return soon. In any case, she relented. 

When she got to the school and climbed the stairs, the "new friend" her student friends had brought her to meet was, of course, Mihran, holding a bouquet of violets. 

I like to think he said "April Fool's!" before he asked her to marry him, but I don't think I'll ever know for sure. 

They married in Athens. Verdjin left the refugee camp and Mihran left his room at the church parsonage. They set up a small household and had three children: Ann, Armen (originally Musa Armen, for Musa Dagh and Armenia) and Hagop (James). Verdjin nursed her mother in her final years. Mihran's father returned to Musa Dagh, which by that time had become a part of the French Mandate of Syria, then the independent state of Hatay. It eventually reverted to Turkey, but he would have likely died before that happened. 

In those pre-war years, these Armenian refugees quite likely looked to their future and saw Greece. Verdjin cared for the home and Mihran worked at the Evangelical Church as the assistant to the pastor, who was blind. The pastor often said that Mihran 'served as his eyes'. Verdjin and Mihran and their three children were not Greek, but they could live here in peace. Their children could live a nearly typical Greek childhood in this slowly growing Athens suburb.

World War II changed that. Many Armenians left: the population decreased from over 100,000 to around 20,000. While Greece had accommodated these refugees, they likely didn't complain when the Armenians emptied out of the neighborhoods that had sprung up in the intervening decades. Verdjin and Mihran knew that they too must go - with Mihran's military past and reputation for having resisted valorously in the years of the genocide, it was quite unlikely that he would have escaped the notice of the approaching Nazis. 

There was a quota system for immigration to the US then - it was not necessarily easier than it is now. Mihran left first, bringing Ann and Armen. Verdjin and Hagop waited in Athens for their 'number' to come up. There is a family story that Verdjin's brother, also in Athens, 'arranged' for papers of potentially dubious legality. I don't know how true this is, but in any case, Verdjin and Hagop eventually joined Mihran and the older children in the USA. 

Ann, Armen and Hagop were refugees; Verdjin and Mihran were refugees twice over. They lost everything, twice. Nevertheless, they made a home for themselves in America. Mihran was ordained and was the founding pastor of an Armenian church in upstate New York. 

Armen, the middle child, went on to earn a Master's in microbiology, married a beautiful woman with Mayflower blood and had five children. The oldest was my mother.

* * *

New York State, 1993

I was twelve years old when Nana died. Her real name was Verdjin, but I didn’t even know that until a few years before - we’d always just called her Nana. I knew her as the tiny old woman who spoke thickly-accented English, whom I couldn’t talk to easily. But she clearly loved me, and she had a certain gravitas about her that made me just the tiniest bit afraid. I knew, before then, that I would likely regret not getting to know her better, but my child’s brain didn’t know how to process that feeling let alone express it.

I grew up eating her food, and my grandmother’s: the only non-Armenian that the church ladies said could cook better Armenian food than any of them. I ate lahmacun, hummus, tabbouleh, sarma and dolma long before I knew what they were actually called. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we’d have turkey, roast or ham - and hummus and dolma. We’d visit her little house - Mihran had died in the 1960s - and sit in her kitchen redolent with Armenian spices, or her white lace curtained, doily-covered living room. I didn’t even know how typically Caucasian those white lace curtains were, nor did I know how closely the doilies resembled Turkish ones.

I didn’t really know what to say when she died: I was sad because she was my Nana, but I had never really known her. As a pre-teen, I didn’t know how to relate to this ancient ‘ethnic’ person. I didn’t know how to ask her questions, or what questions I wanted to ask. We barely spoke a common language, which I didn’t know how to overcome. Everyone cried - I wanted to, but didn’t. I was twelve: I understood death but didn’t really understand. After all, I had hardly known her.

We couldn't even relate to each other as an older and a younger woman: she was a good woman, no, a great woman. Intelligent, with the steel will of someone who grew up in the midst of one tragedy and raised a family in another. An excellent cook. Her morality, however, was Old World. Homemaker, helpmeet, Christian. "Boys and girls are like fire and cotton - they shouldn't be in the same room together." I loved her, but my budding feminist self simply did not share those values.

Towards the end, she forgot the English she did learn to speak, and we couldn’t really communicate. I knew she’d survived ‘The Genocide’ and that her father had been dragged off in front of her and was later killed. I knew her husband, Mihran, had been the pastor of the foreign-seeming church where my grandparents sometimes took me, where they sang hymns in a language I didn’t understand, written in a script I couldn’t read. Armen came to America and decided he wanted to be as American as possible - he hadn’t raised any of his children, including my mother, to speak Armenian.

I didn’t even realize until I put the pieces of his childhood together myself that he was not a native English speaker. You would never be able to tell. Grandpa is still alive, you can go ask him. Or just listen to him talk about how much he loves Donald Trump - I promise, you’d never have guessed he grew up speaking a language other than American English if I hadn’t just told you.

* * * 
Taiwan, 2006

I had been in Taiwan for two weeks when I celebrated my 26th birthday. I’d lived abroad before, but had either made a few real friends, or been friendly enough with the people around me that it didn’t matter that I lacked authentic friendships - my basic social needs could be met. This was the first time I found myself in a city full of people I could potentially be friends with, and yet I had no one to talk to. Most new foreigners to Taiwan make friends with their coworkers first. I didn’t dislike most of them, but I didn’t feel compelled to spend much time with them, either, and I didn’t know anyone else yet.

My roommate and I shared a birthday, but even if we had had friendly chemistry (we didn’t), he had been here awhile and so spent his 26th on a day trip with his girlfriend. I don’t know what the weather was like where they went, but it poured in Taipei - that gray-all-day pissing down that never lets up. My room smelled a bit of must, old apartment and cigarettes - the other roommates sometimes smoked on the balcony outside my room, and I didn’t want to be the bitch who asked them not to. It rained so hard that the old Coke can on the balcony that they’d filled with cigarette butts and ash overflowed, spilling its sooty contents across the tabletop and down the legs in dark gray rivulets. Someone had stuck a sticker to the sliding glass door that led out there from my room. It said “Super” on it. I looked at it and all the gray beyond. “Super,” I thought. Just super.

I took myself out for terrible Indian food, which I ate alone. The samosas deflated under my fork and the lamb rogan josh looked and tasted like it’d come out of a microwave packet. The decoration in the restaurant consisted mostly of old Christmas ornaments taped to the ceiling. Nevertheless, other diners ate with friends, or at least people they knew. I chewed my flabby samosas alone.

The nearest metro station was on the elevated train line, the one that ran down Fuxing Road. As I rode home, I looked out the rain-streaked windows at everyone below: people in cars, people strolling down the sidewalk under colorful umbrellas, and I thought, everyone here has somewhere to be, someone to talk to, or at least people to return to. I am completely and utterly foreign.

What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

Now I know that’s not true - locals are just as able to feel as deeply alone as foreigners, and foreigners don't always stay so neatly foreign - but at the time this thought reduced me to an embarrassing crying jag on the brown line. 


* * * 
Musa Dagh, 2011

Nearly one hundred years after Verdjin and Mihran fled Turkey, my husband and I traveled there. I attempted to find the village where Mihran had grown up. We also stopped briefly in Tarsus, a well-established city.

I couldn’t find the village then, because I lacked the knowledge and resources to get there: we were on a tight budget that precluded hiring a driver, I didn’t know the ‘Turkified’ name of the village, now devoid of Armenians, and I had neither an international driving permit nor the confidence to drive in a country like Turkey. Of course, this small village was not serviced by any buses. We made it as far as Vakifli, the only remaining Armenian village not only on Musa Dagh but in all of Turkey, where the bus stopped. We tried to walk a bit further, but we knew it would have been too far off. 

I took in the meadows where a century before some of my ancestors and their neighbors successfully fought off Turkish troops for those 53 days, and were finally rescued when a passing French ship saw their flag - Christians in Distress - Rescue  - and sent another ship to collect the refugees. Right there, on the Mediterranean coast I was gazing down upon. The whole way down was covered in quiet meadows with blooming flowers. Vakifli was a prosperous little town with a number of well-to-do houses surrounded by tidy fruit orchards and yes, meadows. The sun shined on the line where the sky met the sea. We stopped at the teahouse in Vakifli, where the local Armenians and some ‘roots’ tourists like us played backgammon just like the Turks in other teahouses we’d visited and drank amber-brown tea in flowerbed-shaped glasses…just like the Turks in the other teahouses we visited.

I looked out over the vista, down the coastline where ‘my people’ had been Rescued because they were Christians in Distress, and I could see Syria. Aleppo was only about 50 kilometers away. An ambitious person could have driven there in an hour or two if not for the border and, of course, the war.

Someday, we will return. What seemed impossible in 2011 would now be possible (if not for, of course, the war). I’m more confident, I have more money. I know the current name of the village. We could hire a car and driver or, not necessarily wanting to clarify our mission to a driver, rent a car.

When the war is over, we will return.

Is the war ever really over? 

* * *
Taiwan, 2010
We were about to get married. Brendan and I were a few months away from flying to the US (home?) for the wedding. Our Australian friend in Taiwan had a visitor, and we decided to take a road trip to the mountains. We rented a car and drove up Hehuan Mountain, up past Puli, past Cingjing Farm, up almost to the top where the trees end because they can’t grow at that altitude. I’d been here before with a Taiwanese friend, which is why I thought to take this longer route to Lishan: so I could show my friends the view.

The road snakes through chilly meadows, the low grass allowing for expansive vistas. We stopped at the highest lookout point - I knew realistically that we couldn’t see all of Taiwan from here, but it felt like we could. Taiwan is a small country, but from here, at the top of the meadow, with clouds snaking between the mountains below, it felt endless. 



* * *

Taiwan, 2014

Those kids - maybe not kids, but kids to me, I was in my early thirties then - knew what effect they were having on the nation, but they had no idea what effect they were having on me. They peacefully occupied the legislature, a body created to represent the people which had failed to do so and had thus been taken over by those same people, and I was out there supporting them. It wasn’t not much: I was one body in a crowd of thousands (soon to be hundreds of thousands), and clearly a foreigner. When I picked up the microphone at one of the “public speech zones” set up around the legislature and said my piece, I carefully tailored it to show support for what they were doing, subtly positioning myself as a self-aware semi-outsider who was supportive but not involved. I said it in Chinese, but I don’t look Taiwanese, so I had to do this.

I didn’t say this, but I felt for the first time like I was actually participating in Taiwanese civil society. I didn’t consider myself Taiwanese then and don’t now, but it was a watershed: I was not out there observing, or reporting. I was acting: a supporting role is still a role.

Taiwanese history is not my history, and I would not seek to appropriate it. However, that moment laid a string in the syrup of my sweet life in Taiwan: I had long since built a happy home here. I began to think, for the first time, that although I don’t ‘look’ Taiwanese, and my ancestors were not Taiwanese, that I could live a more-or-less normal life there. I looked to the future, and I saw Taiwan. My job, my husband, my apartment, my cats, my friends, my life were all there. I felt as at home, despite some cultural differences, as I ever did in America. Perhaps more so. I have the wrong face but at least my religion is just fine: plenty of Taiwanese are atheists. It doesn’t matter. I had never felt comfortable as an atheist, either in my home country or my family.

And yet, as much as I felt as though I was participating through offering active support in 2014, I still stayed well away when things got rough and the water cannons came out. Why? Because I had the wrong face, and I had no other reason to be there. I stuck out too much, and I couldn’t change that.

I have never been a refugee - I grew up comfortably enough, because America more-or-less welcomed my ancestors, who were. I’ve never been poor: broke, yes. Not poor. I grew up in a house surrounded by meadows. I didn’t run from a genocide, nor did I leave the USA with a war nipping at my heels. I moved to Taiwan simply because I wanted to, and stayed not because I had to, but because I liked it. I was able to do this because of the generational wealth - not just in terms of money, because they started over with none, but in terms of having the right skin color, language and family religion - all because America allowed in these Christians in Distress, and they prospered.

* * *

Taiwan, 2016

Those kids from 2014 aren’t kids anymore. They have a political party now, and it’s just won five seats in the legislature. A seemingly progressive woman, the first in this country’s history, has just won the presidency, and her party - nominally friendly with those ‘kids’ - a legislative majority. The KMT - they of the former dictatorship and Chinese colonial legacy in Taiwan - are finally on the outs in every elected body of government for the first time.

We were excited, listening with ears almost physically turned to the radio in the taxi, as Dr. Tsai became President-Elect Tsai. We were on the way to the airport to pick up my cousin who, having finished high school early, was coming to spend an informal semester abroad in Taipei because why not? We’re a family borne of two incredible people who were refugees twice over, whom America allowed in and who prospered. Their grandchildren grew up well, well enough that they could now send their own children on excursions to other countries just for fun.

I have blue eyes - they are slightly almondine, a shape common in Turkey and the Caucasus, but not enough that you’d notice if I hadn’t told you - and light brown hair that I dye red. My coloring comes from my beautiful grandmother with the Mayflower blood, my face is a melding of her mother (who looked like my mother), and my grandmother on my dad’s side. My sister has similar coloring. My cousin has light brown curls and green eyes.

Again, you would never have guessed we were Armenian if I hadn’t told you.

In the taxi on the way to pick up my green-eyed cousin, I ruminate on this: that new political party, which surprised everyone by winning five seats? That new president? Our new president? This could represent a change. The KMT, now a sidelined bunch of sad snowflakes, was the party of implicit Han nationalism. They didn’t even dare to say We Taiwanese - it was always Chinese, Chinese, Chinese with them. Locals were allowed to join, but Taiwanese KMT elements were kept in their place within the party. On some level they didn’t think we permanent ‘foreigners’, the ones who don’t look the part of the roles we play, were worth their time. The old laws from the 1920s were never changed: anyone without Taiwanese ancestry had to renounce their original citizenship, but Taiwanese (Republic of China China China to them) could have dual nationality. You could be just as American as me, but have the right face and ancestors, and claim a Republic of China passport. You could have been born here but have the wrong face and ancestors, and be kicked out of the only country you’d ever known when you hit your twenties.

To them, Taiwan was China and China meant Han, or Han-associated. Han-assimilated. To them, it was the Republic of China. That meant one had to be Chinese to belong. I got the feeling that indigenous Austronesians were barely tolerated.

This could be different, I think. The Han chauvinists are out. Sure, Tsai’s party has had its share of Taiwanese Hoklo chauvinists, but the new government has made it clear that they do not see Taiwan as an ‘ethnic’ nation. First of all, that’s impossible - there hasn’t been a single ethnicity that has made up Taiwan in centuries. And secondly, by 2016 most rational people had realized that building nations around ethnicity was a recipe for disaster. When you do that, you might well end up not with a peaceful nation of all one kind of people, but with the death marches my ancestors barely escaped.

So Taiwan should know this: they themselves have had a ‘Chinese’ identity that they did not necessarily want forced on them. They elected a president from a party that has clearly signaled a move away from Taiwanese ethnocentrism and towards internationalization. Internationalization means welcoming foreigners, not just to visit, but to stay. It means building a nation based on shared values, not ethnicity or where your ancestors came from. It also means that people you might have once labeled as ‘foreign’ may not necessarily be anymore. It means that you can be Taiwanese, perhaps, and also have blue eyes and light brown hair that you dye red.

Certainly nobody has to accept that, but if you don’t, then it’s hypocritical to say that you want your country to be more international. 

Perhaps now, I thought, there might be a chance that the government will review the nationality laws and allow for dual nationality for foreign permanent residents. They must know that many of us cannot give up our original nationality - not out of any sense of loyalty, but because we have obligations in our home countries that we can’t sever. 

I looked like a foreigner, but I certainly didn’t feel like one. Would I ever see that reflected in my official status in Taiwan? As of now, my residency does accede permanence, but it also labels me an ‘alien’. 


* * *

New York, 2016

We were flying home for a family reunion. The election hadn’t happened yet. I hadn’t thought Donald Trump would win, but it didn’t matter. A more pressing concern was that my grandpa, whom I loved so dearly, was a staunch Trump supporter to the point where it was hard to have a conversation with him about anything else.

The fact that we had political differences wasn’t the issue. I have Communist friends and Libertarian friends, religious friends and militant atheist friends, somewhat traditional friends and hardcore punk/feminist/polyamorous/what-have-you friends. Friends who wear headscarves and friends who think headscarves are tools of oppression. Whatever.

The problem wasn’t even the casual dismissal of all of Trump’s fatal flaws: the virulent misogyny, the racism, the dehumanization of the poor and struggling. The fact that he had almost certainly sexually assaulted women. I’d met people who didn’t take any of it seriously before and, while I wouldn’t want them in my life socially, I could ignore them as hopeless cases. I could just as easily hug my grandpa and ignore it in him, too, for a few days.

What bothered me then, and bothers me still, is this: when your parents were refugees twice over, and you yourself were a refugee who made good because you were welcomed, how can you then turn around and say that these new refugees should be shut out, allowed to die in a war-torn country or drown in capsized boats? How can you say that it’s a tragedy that your family members died, but it’s not a tragedy that their dead toddlers are washing up on the beaches of Turkey?

Remember, you can see Syria from Musa Dagh.

We drink the same tea and eat the same food. The music is similar, so is the clothing.

Your family ran because a few powerful men in government stoked religious animosity in order to further their agenda of ethnic cleansing. Many Turks - Muslims - spoke out against this or refused to comply. Armenians betrayed your father. A Turk embraced him and let him go free.

Refugees today are running because a few powerful militants are stoking religious animosity in order to further their own agenda, and these people want no part of it.

Are you so special that you deserved better then than they do now?

Are you superior because your family were Christians in Distress, but they are Muslim? They are running too. Should we let them die?

Would we let them die, if they made a flag: Muslims in Distress - Rescue?

They eat the same food, drink the same tea, listen to similar music, wear similar clothing. They would probably love to play a game of backgammon with you. You don’t even really look different. I look more different from you than you do from them.

How would you feel if you heard a Syrian girl cowered with her mother and siblings in a hotel in Damascus as her father was dragged off and shot? Would you feel nothing?

I embrace my grandfather and let these feelings recede. For a few days, I turn them into distant things. I never really got to know Nana, but I’m not going to alienate myself from the grandfather I grew up with. However, I cannot wrap my head around this and I cannot truly let it go.

How can you support banning people who are so much like you from the country that gave you a chance? Do you really think you are the “good” kind of refugee? Are you somehow more deserving of the chance to be American? Is America a country that closes its doors to certain ethnicities? I had thought we were a country built on shared values.

I love you, grandpa, but I don’t think you’re more deserving than them.

I love you, but I hope your side loses. We need your side to lose. I actively work to thwart your agenda. I respect my family history, but I do not necessarily share my ancestors' values.

Can we really be said to be a nation of shared values when our differences go beyond rational disagreement?


* * *
Taipei, 2017

The Tsai administration has announced its new rules for dual nationality. 

We had done what we could to be heard in this country we called home, where we were welcome but always foreign, and where we lack political representation. I wrote in when the draft was open for public comment and had my Taiwanese friends do the same. I let friends in high places know what I and other ‘foreigners’ wanted to see. 

We excitedly awaited the publication of the new guidelines, hoping that perhaps our voices had been heard.

They had not.

Some foreigners - ‘high-level’ foreigners, whatever that means - were now eligible for dual nationality but most of us who had built lives here and done our best to contribute positively to Taiwan were told, essentially, that we were worthless and not welcome to share the same citizenship regulations that applied to native-born Taiwanese (those who looked the part) or those with the right ancestors.

In essence, we were told that some 'foreigners' were better than others, that some could be welcomed into the fold but others, while allowed to stay, must remain outsiders to a degree. Someone decided that a few of us are deserving, and the rest are not.

A few of my friends applied, but as of now, none have heard back.

Several missionaries, however, have been granted dual nationality. While I believe they deserve a path to citizenship just like anyone else and recognize that many of them are good people, I do not necessarily believe that their work merits special priority. Would they do those good deeds if they didn’t also have the chance to win new converts? Would they do them with no other agenda but to do good? Are they not supported by an institution that makes their work possible, in exchange for a hoped-for return on their investment in the form of new parishioners?

As of now, we are still ‘aliens’. 

I read the new regulations while sitting in the Japanese-style tatami alcove of my Taipei apartment. I’m drinking tea - lao ren cha, oolong to be precise. I live in the same sort of apartment, have the same friends, even drink the same tea and now speak the same language as almost every other resident in Taipei, and yet I’m an alien. 


* * *
Athens, 2017

I had been corresponding with the current pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Piraeus Kokkinia for some time, and was interested to meet the person who had such a calming demeanor even through email.

We had spent the past few days in Athens being tourists - too jet lagged on our first day to embark on this kind of journey, and somewhat lost on the second after getting turned around trying to find an open post office, and then couldn’t figure out how to buy bus tickets. 

I kept wanting to say that I was not a tourist, not really. My great grandparents had lived here. My grandfather was born here. I had just as much right to Athens as anyone.

Did I, though? We stayed near the Acropolis and enjoyed the beautiful, old-fashioned urbann Mediterranean neighborhoods in the tourist districts. We used a guidebook to get around. We went to museums and ruins. I don’t speak a word of Greek. Two generations had turned a family of Athenians into complete foreigners.
The day we were thwarted by our inability to buy bus tickets, I emailed our Airbnb host asking him how it was done, and sharing some of my family history with him to explain why we needed to go to Piraeus and take a bus in the first place. Of course, we could have taken a taxi, but I insisted on this tiny bit of local life.

“Oh wow,” he responded. “My brother’s godfather was an Armenian refugee too!”

As the metro headed towards Piraeus, the scenery became rougher. Around the main tourist sites, you wouldn’t know that Greece was in the midst of an economic meltdown. Everything was comfortable and picturesque, as it usually is in such neighborhoods. Beyond Thisio, however, the ever-present graffiti further encrusted every flat space. Faded buildings in need of modern updates predominated. The streets looked older, the parks and medians poorly maintained, storefronts closed.

I had told the pastor that we’d arrive around 11am. We fumbled looking for the proper bus stop and finally found the church at 12:30; fortunately, Mediterranean time is flexible and he didn’t mind.

The old building from 1924 is still there and undergoing renovation. The old classrooms have been converted into offices, a guest room and a kitchen, but are still there. The parsonage where Mihran briefly lived still exists; the new pastor resides there, as the blind pastor Mihran worked for had done before him.

I know that Mihran waited with a bouquet of violets from the meadow in one of these classrooms, but I don’t know which one. In any case, I took a picture of each. Downstairs, the pastor gestured to a picture on the wall which included the blind minister and Mihran. Almost a hundred years later, and my great-grandfather’s face can still be seen in Greece.

We had coffee with the pastor in the courtyard and I take an instant liking to him, so much so that I decide not to mention that I’m an atheist. It doesn’t matter, anyway. He exudes calm, and I can see why someone with a spiritual bent would want to join his congregation.

We talked about those ‘kids’ in Taiwan in 2014, the ones who occupied the legislature. He mentions that in Greece, students will lock their school in protest and classes will cease until negotiations can take place - they do this over small things, like not thinking the lunches served in the cafeteria are good enough. “They have no respect for authority,” he says.

I smiled in a way that indicated that, while I agreed that it’s a bit silly to close a school down over substandard lunches, I didn’t really concede a need to respect authority so much.

“Well, a little disrespect for authority is good,” he continued, “but that’s just silly.”

Yup, I liked this guy.

He went on to describe how, when the Armenians arrived in Greece, they had nothing, The church and parsonage themselves were built entirely with donations from missionary groups. I didn’t know how to feel about this, but I accepted that one can have conflicting feelings about an issue such as missionary work, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know your own mind. 

I inquired then about the meadow where Mihran might have picked those violets. 

Some things are lost to time, however. There had been several refugee camps, and there are several hills around Piraeus. Any one of them would have served as a meadow above the nearest camp. It’s impossible to know for sure which one was theirs. I had seen a lot of places from my family’s past that day, but the meadow I sought was gone forever. 


* * * 
Armenia, 2017

Our next stop is Yerevan.

We arrive before dawn and get three hours of sleep before we’re picked up for an 11-hour day trip to Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries. We plan it this way because it’s $30 cheaper per person to go on that day rather than the next. We’re not sure why, but we roll with it and plan to sleep on the bus.

I don’t sleep much, though. I’m too captivated by the scenery of Armenia. The entire country seems to be covered in meadows; it grasps at my heart.

Armenia is a small country. However, as the bus makes its way over the grassy summits of hills that look out over still more hills, then mountains, then snow-covered massifs beyond, one gets a sense of infinite space. It’s as though Armenia goes on forever.

One of the main reasons I booked this trip was that Khor Virap monastery has the best possible view of Mount Ararat, with the best chance of seeing it even in poor weather conditions. As we leave Yerevan and head toward the monastery, Ararat comes into view. It, too, grasps at my heart. Ararat is said to be the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest, and is a cultural and historical touchstone to Armenians, whose country has been Christian since 301 AD. I may not be Christian, and I certainly don’t believe the story of the flood and the ark depict true events, but I am an Armenian and it was important for me to see this mountain.

Mount Ararat, however, is currently within the borders of Turkey, not Armenia.

The view from Khor Virap across the Turkish border to Ararat is almost entirely treeless, it is one meadow stretched across two countries. I suspect people on both sides of that line eat similar food, drink similar tea, and they probably all play backgammon. 

When I take a picture of myself with it in the background, I am wearing a t-shirt that says “Taiwan Soul” in Chinese.

In Yerevan, children stare at me. This is not new; children stare at me in Taiwan too. I’m more okay with it in Taiwan; as local as I may feel, I still look, to them, like a foreigner. I may want to share the national values of the Taiwanese, but I am simply not the same race.

Here, I want to tell every person who gives me a passing glance that I am, in fact, Armenian. I do tell some people. Everyone is surprised. I suspect some don’t believe me. I couldn’t look less Armenian if I tried.

“My grandfather is Armenian,” I say. “He’s even named Armen, for Armenia.”

I can sense their next question.

“But he’s not from Armenia,” I add. “We’re Armenians but we came from Turkey.”

One person kindly offers that ancient Armenians are said to have had blue eyes. I smile and say ‘maybe’, but I know it’s probably not true and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter.

This doesn’t feel very different from the other thing I keep telling people - that we live in Taiwan but were born in America, or that we’re “from the USA, but we live in Taiwan”. My grandfather earned the right to say he was American, but I have not (yet?) earned the right to say I am Taiwanese.

Of course, they wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t told them. It can’t be guessed.

I wonder if I can ever just be a person who is from a place and have it be simple. 

It’s not simple, though. If it were, I could shed all of the privilege I was born with, this generational wealth and the better treatment it often affords me. It’s not so simple at all as pretending these things don’t matter. They shouldn’t, but they do. On some level I too must agree with this - if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so eager to play the Armenian card in Armenia, a country whose language I don’t speak, whose culture is not mine, and yet is so familiar to everything I grew up with. The food, especially. The language - I grew up around Grandpa Armen talking to Nana and other older family members in Western Armenian. Eastern Armenian is not quite the same, but it sounds more or less the same to me.

How can I say it should be easy to look beyond ethnicity and nationality when I have one of the best passports in the world, and when I, too, feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to the best possible view of Mount Ararat, because I happen to be of a people for whom Ararat is sacred? How can I say it when I live in Taiwan not because I have to, but because I chose to?

The next day we go to the Armenian genocide memorial. Mournful opera music is piped through speakers across the grounds. We sit in the enclosed circle looking at the eternal flame and I think back to Musa Dagh. Within sight of it another war rages on. This memorial is certainly important, but if all we do are mourn genocides after they happen, and then allowing the next one to happen anyway, then I have conflicting feelings about memorializing something intrinsic  to the fabric of my family - people who enjoy prosperity, no longer Christians in Distress - while letting the next atrocity happen literally next door.

What good is it, when you can see today’s genocide from the site of yesterday’s?

I look back past the election, and the callousness of Americans who once suffered towards the suffering of Syrians today, back past Taiwan and past Grandpa in 2016 in his Make America Great Again hat, all the way back to 1993 when Verdjin died before I ever really got to know her. 24 years later, I cry.

But I’m wearing sunglasses, and you wouldn’t know I was crying if I hadn’t told you. 

In the museum, I sit for a good long time looking at the small exhibit on the resistance on Musa Dagh. What they did was extraordinary, and I’m moved that it is still remembered in some small way a century later. There is a screen showing a slideshow of photos - I recognize the coastline where the refugees from Musa Dagh boarded the Jean D’Arc and were taken to safety in Port Said, Egypt. It was right there as I looked down the meadow to the sea, just north of the Syrian border. The Christians in Distress flag is not there, but the second flag, which was stitched with a red cross, is. It’s a replica, of course, but it almost doesn’t matter. 

If there is ever a memorial to the victims of the massacre at Aleppo, which is so close to Musa Dagh, will it matter if it’s erected while the next massacre is going on?

Towards the middle of the exhibitions is a room chronicling the treatment of Armenian women and children during the genocide. I notice one panel covered in text discussing the “rape of beautiful Armenian women” and “Armenian teenage virgins” (the first quote is exact, the second is a paraphrase). It feels cheap, to imply that the greatest quality of these victimized women is their beauty or virginity. It feels cheap to list Armenian intellectuals and see that almost all of them were men. I would prefer to face the horrible truth of genocide without a small side-dish of casual sexism. I generally identify recognition of the genocide as a liberal value, but liberalism has not always been kind to women or friendly towards gender equality. Who gets to decide at what point elevating public figures based on their merits turns into suppressing female voices because they were born into a system that doesn't support them? Who decided that liberals should support abolition but mock suffrage, support civil rights but mock feminism, support democracy and yet shun Taiwan, support learning the lessons of history and yet continue to treat the Armenian genocide as a "debate"? Who decided that all of this was acceptable in a framework for liberalism that espouses equality for all?

About two-thirds of the way through the museum there is an exhibit on a 1919 movie called Ravished Armenia: The Auction of Souls. I won’t go into the plot details, but it is based on a true story. There is one poster in particular showing Aurora Mardiganian, a pale-skinned, dark-haired beauty in a flowing white dress, being forcible grabbed at the waist and dragged off by a Turkish soldier who is depicted as monstrous, more inhuman than World War II propaganda against the Japanese. He has dark skin, squinted eyes, an inhuman expression on his face and he is, frankly, monstrously ugly.

I understand that this poster is from the late 1910s, but it’s presented without comment or context. By bringing to light the suffering of one group, it dehumanizes another.

I see this and remember that Mihran was betrayed by fellow Armenians, and embraced and set free by a Turkish friend. I remember that the Turks who participated in the genocide were whipped into a frenzy by the Young Turk leadership, and Donald Trump’s anti-foreigner, anti-refugee supporters are being whipped into something very similar. This poster is a historical artifact, I think, but it needs more context than it is given.

Throughout the museum are references to the missionaries who came to the aid of the Armenians: first those who survived the death marches, and later the orphans of those who didn't. I may not be a fan of the philosophy behind missionary work, but I can't deny that they were of great help to my ancestors. We have different values, but we can rationally disagree.

As I walk through, I think about an event from my youth: I referred to the genocide as "The Armenian Holocaust", because every Armenian I knew did so. The person retorted: "I'm sure it was terrible but can you not use the word 'Holocaust'? Can you just let the Jewish people have that word?"

I haven't used that term since, but years on, it caused me to wonder. Which genocides are genocides, and which get their own word? Who decides? If a special word were created for the Armenian genocide, would anyone use it? With the strong arm of the Turkish government clamping down on recognition, would people dare? Even those who claim to espouse liberal values?

At the end of the museum there is a simple quote:

“…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
- Adolf Hitler


Of course, it is important to remember these things, to memorialize them, but it’s not enough. If the descendants of the survivors of Armenian genocide accept a massacre happening within sight of one of the bravest fights of the Armenian resistance, we haven't really remembered anything.

I think back to my time in Turkey and all of the friendly Turkish people I met, some of whom I consider real friends. They are all aware of my family history, and none has said a critical word about it. There is plenty of documentation proving the truth of the genocide, but beyond that, I have my great grandparents’ lived testimony. I like to believe that they understand that their government’s official stance that it never happened is false, and they’ve never given me any reason to think they don’t understand that. However, I am aware of how difficult it is to overcome one’s education, and I’m a bit afraid to ask.

In this way, I feel some sympathy with the Taiwanese. It is difficult to overcome one’s KMT-indoctrination-based education, and many Taiwanese who look at history with clearer eyes live alongside neighbors who still make excuses for the old dictatorship. Sometimes they know this, sometimes, perhaps, they dare not ask. 


They, too, fought a long battle for the recognition of the massacres following 228. The specific events were very different, but the essentials are similar.


Back in Yerevan, I feel oddly at home among the massive stone buildings, brandy distilleries and wide promenades. We eat food similar to the food I ate growing up, and at one Western Armenian restaurant, we follow it up with tea in tulip-shaped glasses, just like the ones everyone, Armenian and Turkish, drinks from in Turkey. Back home in Taipei we have Turkish and Chinese teacups as well as big American mugs.

I consider this: Taiwan and Armenia are different, but not that different. Both are small countries vying to be heard: one to be recognized for the country that it is, the other for its greatest national tragedy to be fully recognized by the world. Both are full of people with a fighting spirit, who never give up even when the odds are not in their favor. Both have a sense of great national pride and identity. Taiwan is full of old KMT-era military rah-rah: we can’t entirely rid ourselves of it, as we have a real military threat right across the strait. At the top of a hill, a statue of Mother Armenia wielding a sword looks across the city. If you climb up there you’ll see that she’s flanked by tanks, missiles and war materiel (I don’t know if it’s real or not). She is facing Mount Ararat, which happens to be in Turkey.

What’s more, to recognize the Armenian genocide is a liberal value. To recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, considering its democratic values, is also a liberal value. And yet both causes have been abandoned by liberals because stronger, angrier illiberal regimes have insisted on it.

Ethnocentrism dressed up with a fat dollop of manufactured religious fanaticism, served up on a hot spearhead of ethnic nationalism was the weapon used by a bloodthirsty government to annihilate millions of Armenians in 1915. Today, some people denigrate Taiwanese identity, equating it with that same sort of ethnic nationalism. It’s not, though. Taiwan is not seeking to purge itself of all foreign elements: there is a growing understanding that there are many ways to be Taiwanese. If anything, Taiwan is moving in the direction of modern liberalism: a country based not on ethnicity but on shared values. All it wants is for the world to recognize what is true. The independence Taiwan seeks is independence from being forced into provincial status under a country that does not share its values.

That’s not so different from what Armenia wants, although the recognition it seeks is different.

Many young, liberal Taiwanese have been engaging in a national conversation about what word to call Taiwan. The Republic of China is an obvious no, as it's not China. Taiwan is a Chinese word, but likely originates from an indigenous one. However, that's also the word China uses to claim it as a province. Formosa, perhaps?

Who decides which countries are deserving, and which aren't? Who deserves which countries are welcomed in, and which are left out? Can one bow to the wishes of illiberal regimes and yet still call oneself a liberal?

Considering the strong-arm power of China, if Taiwan came up with a new word for itself, would anyone dare to use it, even those who claim to espouse the right kind of liberal values? Who decides which countries get to choose their name and their fate, and which must give in to stronger, illiberal powers?

Essentially, both countries want those who claim to espouse liberal values to actually live up to them.

Some people say that we Westerners in Taiwan, with our fight for dual nationality and our support of liberalism, are pushing beliefs on the Taiwanese that they don't want or are not endemic to their culture. Someone might even note that, if this were true, it wouldn't be much different from the work missionaries engage in, which I oppose. I wouldn't say it's true though: those students didn't occupy the legislature because liberal values were pushed on them - they simply have liberal values. Taiwan did not take a step towards a more egalitarian dual nationality law because we pushed them: we have no political representation. We can't push anyone. Taiwan isn't a country where almost everyone believes in democracy and the majority believe in equality because we pushed them. Liberal values are global, not Western. We can share them without having to push.

I’m Armenian but my family is from Turkey. I was born in the USA, but Taiwan is my home. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be more simple than that. 

3 comments:

Team Leader said...

Thank you, I very much enjoyed reading this!

Zla'od said...

A very moving essay. By a series of strange coincidences, I am currently studying (Eastern) Armenian, and trying to qualify for "super-foreigner" status here in Taiwan. I read about Musa Dagh just a few weeks before this, on another Armenian history page.

BTW, my mother-in-law received one of those neighborhood mothers awards you mentioned in another post. Tell me if you still want to know how that works. (I would have written before, but having to sign up for a Google account was a demotivator.)

Jenna Cody said...

I amdefinitely curious about how that works!

About the Google accounts, it's because Blogger doesn't allow me to ban harassers and trolls, and I was getting harassing messages, and even a few (empty) threats. I could delete the comments but not stop them. Setting this commenting rule doesn't do much, but it stopped the harassment because whatever trolls those were were also demotivated!

I'd prefer open commenting but I had to do something.