Changing identity: Jerusalem to Surrey
Culture / October 8, 2013
A personal exploration of what it means to be Canadian.
By Sarine Gulerian
It must have been a subtle shift. To this day I cannot give the exact, or even general, time it took place. The moment when I began to think and even dream in the English language, rather than Armenian, is a mystery.
Conversing with me now, you would never know that English is my second language. My tan and foreign accent faded long ago.
Because of my pale skin colour, perfect English and “Canadian” exterior, people assume that I was born and raised in Canada, where I currently reside.
Sitting in the back room of Starbucks, enjoying my well-earned lunch, my cell phone rang. Interrupting my conversation with my co-worker I quickly picked up my phone.
“Hi bab, inch gelagor?” I said. This is my usual script when my father calls, it’s the same as “Hi dad, what’s going on?” Casually talking to my father, I failed to realize why my co-worker was staring at me.
Her eyes squinted and intently listening, it dawned on me. She’d never heard me speak in Armenian. She probably didn’t even know what Armenian meant and, at that point, neither did I.
Being an Armenian, who was born in Jerusalem but currently living in Canada, was a combination that resulted in an identity crisis during my early teens. I found myself ashamed of being different. I began to dress in fashionable clothes, painting on make-up and straightening my hair to blend in. Just like many other 15-year-olds, all I wanted in life was to fit in and be normal.
My parents took it upon themselves to make this as difficult as possible. I hold NBC and ABC responsible. Dateline and 20/20, which aired every Friday night at 10 p.m., had my parents convinced that all young, intelligent, beautiful girls who have a bright future end up in a ditch, run away, overdose, get kidnapped by their jealous boyfriends, or die in some insane manner.
In high school I couldn’t go to most sleepovers, I couldn’t go to parties … and there was no way I could hang out with boys. Trying to explain to my Canadian friends why I couldn’t be at Kaila’s weekend benders was humiliatingly impossible. I didn’t know which was worse: having to explain to people that my parents couldn’t cut my umbilical cord, or going out with the risk of getting caught, and having to face the wrath of my father.
But I understand now why it was so hard for my parents to allow us any freedom. We moved from an enclosed neighbourhood with a curfew in Jerusalem, which was also home to their lifelong friends and family, to some suburban street in a foreign country where the only thing we had in common with our neighbour was our fence.
The process of being Canadianized was almost as sluggish as human evolution. But, slowly and surely, changing our environment led to the change of thought process, lifestyle and personality. Khoren, my brother, soon became Corey. Ohan, my father, soon became John. These were some of the obvious changes made in the process of conforming to Canadian culture. The subtle changes, like the disappearance of our accents, went unnoticed until years later when I tried to pinpoint the precise moment we became Canadian. I realized that my siblings and I spoke to each other in English, we had Chinese food and pizza parties rather than traditional Armenian meals, and our Christmas was no longer celebrated on Jan. 6. Change is never good or bad, it is something we all must do to adapt at school, work or in the real world and this too was just a change.
After the initial culture shock, the years quickly passed. At the age of 13 I realized that I had lived longer in Canada then I had back home, in Jerusalem. What a strange thought. Did living longer in Canada mean that I was officially Canadian?
The answer became more obvious when I was 17 and my family decided to go back and visit for the first time since 1997. And finally in April 2009 we took our first family trip back to Jerusalem during Easter. It was a special occasion for the Armenians who grew up in Jerusalem because it was the 80th anniversary of St. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School. It is the only school which is enclosed inside of the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, the school that my father graduated from, and the same school my mother, my family and all our friends had attended. Everyone, no matter where they were now, was expected back for a reunion.
Corey and I landed at the Tel Aviv airport. The rest of my family had departed after us. As soon as we arrived we were deemed suspicious. “If you were born here, why don’t you have an Israeli passport?” asked one of the women working. They automatically concluded that we must be Arab. Two hours later we were finally given an opportunity to explain that we weren’t Arab and we weren’t Israeli. We were Armenian. Raised in St. James Monastery, an Armenian-orthodox convent located in the southwest of Jerusalem, we were the exception to their strict citizenship laws.
But instead of welcoming us back — something Canadians do when they flip through your passport, smile and wave you through the border — they whispered to each other in Hebrew, a language they knew neither of us understood.
My brother and I were interrogated together, separately, then together again. They had taken our passports and our bags. We were left in a small room with other travelers that had been stopped, the majority of whom looked and spoke Arabic.
At that point, all I wanted was to go home … but this was supposed to be my home, wasn’t it?
It felt as if I had run into an old best friend who, once upon a time, I knew well and loved dearly. Now, 12 years later, they were a stranger and the comfortable feeling I once had in their presence had vanished. I felt out of place. I felt like I was back in high school, and all I wanted was to fit in. Once we were finally released, we found our cousins patiently waiting outside the terminal. We didn’t have to explain to them what happened; they had already assumed.
The architecture in Jerusalem* was nothing like the cute colourful suburban houses in Surrey. I found myself missing the random smiles strangers always flash at each other when walking by in Canada, something I had failed to notice. To me it was a different world. Everyone here was intensely focused on the ground while walking, sandwiched like a school of fish, through the narrowed alleys. Sometimes they used their shoulders as a weapon to shovel through you. I always hoped this was done only to avoid tripping on the uneven ground. But I knew better. There was tension no matter which way you went. This place was too unfamiliar, too unfriendly and full of way too many fundamentalists
This couldn’t be my home. It may have been a part of my culture and my history but now it was a part of my past. I couldn’t relate to these people in any way. Of course, I’m Armenian and I will always be proud of my ethnicity, but I couldn’t be any happier with the choice my parents forced upon me. I couldn’t be more thankful that I live in my favourite place in the world. There’s no place like home.
*The Oct. 8 print edition of this story incorrectly suggested the author had lived in Armenia.*