Ask me where I'm from and I'll answer you literally: Los Angeles. I'll say that even when I know that's not what you mean. You want to know the story behind my ambiguously ethnic looks and my last name, which seems so unusual but actually isn't. Ohanesian is a common last name among people who share my heritage. I'm Armenian, by the way — not a citizen of the tiny country in the Caucasus region but part of the diaspora.
As a kid, that was a hard thing to explain. It was the end of the Cold War and, in the neck of the San Fernando Valley where I was raised, there weren't a lot of people with last names or faces like mine, as there are today. There was no country of Armenia to point out on a map, no nearby Zankou Chicken to cite as a culinary reference. I could tell people where my great-grandparents lived, but it would take a while and wouldn't make much sense to children who'd yet to study World War I. The names of my great-grandparents' hometowns remain obscure to most people in the United States. They were ethnic minorities in empires that had, by the 1980s, long since crumbled. As an adult, that's a lot to explain. When you're 10, you just don't want to deal with it.
Things are different now. Kim Kardashian and Conan O'Brien have taken us on TV tours of Armenia. Everybody seems to love our food or, at least, that's what they tell us time and again. Plus, there are a lot of us living in the Los Angeles area, enough where the county felt it appropriate to designate this April as Armenian History Month. That's awesome! We're an ancient people with a lot of history to share. But that history is also heartbreaking.
When you're Armenian, history is a loaded subject. Ours is one that was almost erased. On April 24, we commemorate the Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed by their own government. Those who survived spread out across the globe.
My own great-grandparents came to the United States from the Ottoman Empire and neighboring parts of the Russian Empire. Some emigrated in the years leading up to the genocide, when trouble was already stirring. Others experienced the worst hell of it, arriving in the United States as survivors of one of the great human-rights atrocities of the 20th century. We know bits and pieces of their stories — where they lived, why they left, how they got here — but not much from before that period. It's as if my family's history begins with chaos.
That latter half of my American-Armenian hyphenate identity is as important as the first. My parents dragged me to long, incense-filled Armenian church services. I went to Saturday school to learn a language that, unfortunately, I never quite mastered, and to summer camp and youth group to try to socialize with other Armenian kids. Most important, though, I grew up with the knowledge that I'm American because I'm Armenian, because about a century ago, on another continent, my kind were nearly annihilated. That's something I've known since I was old enough to ask, "So, how did our family get here?"
It's not an easy history to handle. When I started reading books on the genocide, the subject became nightmare fuel. There were scenes so brutally violent, so filled with hate, that I couldn't forget them, even when I slept. I tried to keep pages dry as I flipped through them, spotting the familiar names of locations through blurry eyes, reading testimonies that were eerily similar to the details my mom shared with me about her grandmothers' ordeals.
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The horror of the genocide is enough to bring anyone to tears, regardless of your background. But when you are Armenian, there is an added weight. If you're Armenian, a group of people conspired to try to ensure that people like you don't exist. Despite that, you are here. Maybe it's because of some strange twist of fate or because of sheer determination, but your ancestors were among the survivors, the ones who were tasked with keeping the Armenian story from ending. Now that duty has been passed down to you.
The obligation can seem difficult to fulfill. Turkey continues to deny the genocide. The United States doesn't officially acknowledge it, despite the humanitarian efforts of this country's citizens during that time. Today, as the annual protest marches begin, there will no doubt be people who roll their eyes and say we should get over it already. But 100 years wasn't that long ago. Plenty of us who are alive right now knew survivors.
More important, we know it happened. This was a documented event for which there is evidence. When people say that we must be misremembering our own history, there is a problem. When people say that we should get over it, there is a problem. Our story is long, but this one event permanently changed the course of it. It gutted our population and left the survivors homeless. It made us the physically scattered yet emotionally connected people that we are today. Because of the genocide, we became Lebanese-Armenians, French-Armenians, Australian-Armenians, American-Armenians and so much more. Our history became many histories. We can't ever simply forget that. So we continue with the marches and the articles and the social media posts.
We continue telling you who we are and why we're here.