I’m about to write a post that I think may resonate with a number of people. This is a post about “going home”, and how complicated it can be. I understand that for some people, home is where they want to be. I have friends who have never left the place they lived when we were children. They are perfectly happy living where they grew up. I’m not one of those people. I’ve had a number of “homes” in my lifetime, but only a few of them affected me so much that the idea of going back there makes me feel apprehensive.
In less than three weeks, I will be visiting a place that unexpectedly changed my life years ago. I won’t lie. I’m a bit nervous about our upcoming trip to Armenia. Sure, I am looking forward to going there and seeing how much it’s changed. I can’t wait to show Bill some of the places I’ve talked about for years. I worry that our trip might be too short, because there’s so much I could show him. And yet, I’m also feeling worried and nervous about this trip, more so than any other I’ve taken.
I first heard of Armenia when I was in the fourth grade, and my teacher, Mr. Almasian, told us about his heritage. At that time, it was 1981, and the United States was deeply entrenched in the Cold War. Armenia was then part of the Soviet Union, which was an enemy to the United States. I distinctly remember Mr. Almasian telling us about how Armenia was a Christian nation– the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. And yet, now it was part of the Soviet Union, which highly discouraged citizens to adhere to religions.
At that time in 1981, I never had a clue that one day I’d move to Armenia to live for two years. Back then, I assumed Armenia would always be out of reach, because it was behind what we knew as the Iron Curtain. I didn’t think that curtain would ever part for someone like me. But I also remember getting a kick out of how Mr. Almasian told us that most Armenians’ last names ended with “ian” or “yan”. I later found out that was true.
I also remember my teacher playing Jesus Christ Superstar for us. When I later moved to Armenia, I remember hearing all of the bootleg cassette tape sellers blasting music from Jesus Christ Superstar from their stereo systems. I ended up buying one of the tapes and listened to it long enough to memorize the songs. My parents actually had that album on LP at home, but I always refused to listen to it, because I didn’t like religion. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to appreciate religion more, although I’m still not a church attendee.
My two years in Armenia were difficult for me, but not in ways that a lot of people would have expected. I think a lot of my problems came from a lack of good communication, a lack of assertiveness on my part, and perhaps a lack of maturity on many people’s parts. I was ultimately successful as a Volunteer, but perhaps not in the ways I thought I should have been. When I left Armenia in 1997, I was really ready to go. I was bitter, burned out, and legitimately depressed to the point at which I needed medication.
And yet, every day, I think of the time I spent in Armenia and just how incredible the opportunity to live there was for me. It really did change my life on so many levels. I wonder if I deserved the opportunity I received… and I realize that I was extremely lucky on many levels. Other than some rather serious recurrent skin infections and moderate depression and anxiety, I finished my service relatively unscathed.
I’m now over double the age I was when I arrived in Armenia in June 1995. I was about three weeks from turning 23 when I got there. When I left, I was 25 years and 2 months old, almost to the day. I’m now 51, and this will be my first trip back there… the first time I’ve dared to go back. It’s changed so much since I was last there, but I know there are some things that haven’t changed at all. I wonder if I’m ready to face it.
When I’ve told people we’re going to Armenia, some have expressed concern because of the situation in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. I’m not that worried about that. I expect we might see protests and refugees, things I saw when I lived in Armenia in the 90s. I don’t worry about being in any physical danger, because we don’t plan to go anywhere near the dangerous areas by the borders. I suspect we’ll mostly stick to Yerevan. Maybe we can arrange a day trip somewhere outside of the capital, although this might not be the best time of year for that. I don’t think we’ll be physically unsafe, though.
I’m more worried about how I will deal with this visit in an emotional sense. Genealogically, I’m not Armenian at all, and yet I feel like it’s an intrinsic part of me now. I don’t know if this is a common response to Peace Corps service, but for me, it feels like this trip is akin to going “home”… and going “home” can be a very stressful undertaking. I feel somewhat less apprehensive about going back to Armenia than I’d feel about going “home” to Virginia. I love Virginia, as it’s my home and birthplace– but going there is always stressful, because it means confronting crap from the past. And that’s kind of how I feel about Armenia, too. There’s stuff from my time there that makes me feel worried… because it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
In spite of what some people might have thought of me and my service in Armenia, it truly changed my life. Being there made me a better person and made me grow in leaps and bounds. Maybe going back to Armenia will be edifying and enriching, and my feelings of apprehension will forever abate, because I do think that ultimately, I did fine as a Volunteer. Or maybe there will be tension and unrest, like there sometimes is when I go home to my family of origin– people I will always love, but with whom I share a complicated and difficult past.
In 1997, I left Armenia feeling somewhat like I’d failed. I didn’t think many people liked me very much. I wondered if I’d wasted my time there. I now know that none of those things are totally true… and what was affecting my feelings had a lot to do with clinical depression and the anxiety I felt about going home to the United States. Put it this way… I do think there were a few people in Armenia who didn’t like me and thought I was a waste of space. But I don’t think that was how most people saw me. My feelings were highly magnified by depression, which always distorts things.
The truth is, most people’s feelings were probably either neutral or they simply didn’t care, because they had their own shit to worry about. Moreover, everywhere I go, there are people who wind up not liking me. For many reasons, I’m not always a very likable person. But not being likable doesn’t mean I’m not a “good” person, just like being likable doesn’t make someone a decent or honorable person. Plenty of likable people are perfect assholes underneath the facade. And plenty of unlikable people are actually really fine folks, if you just take the time to get to know them. But, when you’re not super personable or charismatic, you can feel like an outsider. That’s how I often felt in Armenia. I often feel the same way when I’m with my family, even though I love them.
I worry that going back to Armenia will make me feel like I do when I go home to my family. However, I feel like I have to go there. If I don’t go, I will regret it. And I worry that if I wait much longer, I might lose out of my chance to go when it still somewhat resembles the place I left more than a lifetime ago– as I am now more than twice the age I was when I left. I’m going to try to be brave and open-minded, and see Armenia with older, wiser eyes and a willing heart. Maybe, once I’ve done this trip to Armenia, I’ll find the courage to go back to Virginia.
I’m sure if I thought about this some more, I could come up with a more concise post that makes more sense. I think I’ve waited this long to go to Armenia because the idea of going back there made me feel anxious and stressed. I wanted to go back, just as I’ve wanted to go home to Virginia… and yet, just like going to Virginia, I feel like I’m going to dive into a conflict from which it’s going to take a long time to recover. Does that sound crazy?
You see? I really am deeper than I appear…
I took the featured photo from a window in the school where I taught English to children aged 7, 11, 15, and 16… It was a rare day when the air quality was good enough to see Mount Ararat. There was also a train coming. I don’t know from where. I probably took the picture sometime in 1996.