One of the ethnic communities in the US with its own history and a set of cultural and religious traditions is the Armenian community. This paper’s objective is to examine the peculiarities of the cultural and religious background of the Armenian ethnic minority, history of its development, and features of the cultural events inside the community. The paper is also to analyze the preconceptions and biases associated with the community on the basis of the interview with a community member.
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Contextual background: demographics and history
American Armenians represent a strong ethnic minority community in the US. The distribution of the families with the Armenian ancestry is not even around the different states. In total, there are nearly a million of people of Armenian ethnicity in America. However, despite the fact that the approximate number of the American citizens with the Armenian ancestry in Arizona is nearly 2,500 households the community manages to preserve its historical, cultural, and religious identity (Griffiths, 2008). Considering the history of the Armenian nation, it may be the overcoming the hardship that helped this ethnic community to protect their national and cultural values and beliefs while integrating into the American society.
For the immigrant communities in the US and their descendants, there are a number of issues concerning the assimilation to the society while trying to preserve the cultural identity and traditions of their ethnic roots. The socialization and affiliating with the American most common lifestyle, as well as functioning in the society with the different cultural values imposes some boundaries on the process of recognition of the cultural heritage. That often concerns the background of preserving unity in terms of religious, linguistic and customary aspects. Also, the cultural identity of the ethnic or immigrant groups can often be lost because of their uneven geographical spread, or lack of geographical unity, when their local communities are too small to keep them together. In this respect, the communities of the American Armenians represent an interesting example of the geographical integration.
Usually, the immigrants of the Armenian ancestry in the US tend to settle near the groups of their ethnicity. Thus, the diaspora is unevenly represented throughout different states, but they have powerful communities in the places where they settle. Perhaps, the tendency of forming the little communities where they can sustain the traditional cultural environment is one of the main distinctions of the cultural group of American Armenians. It also helps them to promote their culture among the descendants of the Armenian ancestry and to organize work of getting the general public more familiar with their culture.
Thus, the important issue, in this respect, is the Armenian cultural heritage and historical background. Originally, the homeland of Armenians, today the Republic of Armenia, is situated in Asia Minor, just in-between two historical regions of Europe and the Middle East. Culturally, it has been influenced by its different neighbors because the country is small in size and, therefore, was many times throughout history under the impact of more powerful political bodies. The identity of the country was formed before around either 7th or 6th century BC from the tribes that inhabited the area. Thus, the Armenian civilization has developed its culture and history for a long time, and being invaded by the different other historical states and civilizations; it has adopted some cultural features from Romans, Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. The most important of those cultural influences was, of course, the Christian religion (Takooshian, 2015).
Christianity as the national religion of the kingdom of Armenia was adopted in the year 301, even before the existence of the Byzantine Empire and Emperor Constantine. Over the years, various influences in the spheres of cultural and religious life tried to diminish the significance of this event. For example, during the invasions by Persians, the national identity and practice of the Christianity were suppressed. Whereas during the reign of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire in Armenia, the national culture and religion prospered, the Soviet governance of the country reduced the role of the national culture in the public life again. The Armenian Apostolic Church that was formed in the county and is recognized as belonging to the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity (Griffiths, 2008).
It remains today an important component of the national beliefs and values, together with those notions that were acquired in the process of interacting with the other culture, different assimilations. In the case of the American Armenians, the cultural concept formed among the descendants of the Armenian ancestry molded in the course of immigration and adapting to another culture.
Thus, another important aspect is the history of the immigration of Armenians to the United States. There are numerous diasporas of Armenians around the world, but the beginning of their immigration to the United States dates back to the end of the 19th century. It was the phase of the violent nationalistic times in Turkey, where many Turkish Armenians lived, during the period after the Ottoman Empire began to lose its power and influence.
The Armenian minorities were perceived as the non-Muslim infidels because of their Orthodox Christian faith, which resulted in massacres on the ethnic and religious grounds, and the genocide of a million Armenians during the World War I. During those times, Turkish Armenians united and formed a republican state in the northeast direction to Turkey. Since the newly formed country, who just lost thousands of Armenians, was threatened by the Turkish nationalistic army, they accepted the protection of the Soviet Russia. The latter became a significant political influence in Armenia for the major part of the 20th century. All of those events combined became the reason for the massive immigration of Armenians to the United States of America and worldwide (Takooshian, 2015).
Nevertheless, the Armenian immigration to the US had certain stages and was determined by a number of factors that influenced the formation of the Armenian descendants cultural values. This process can be divided into three main waves: the first one consisted of Turkish Americans who left the Ottoman Empire before WWI, the second one took place after the massacres of 1915-1920 when the short period more than 30,000 Armenians, including professionals and skilled workers, fled their homeland (Mead, 1978).
The third wave was the longest, and it represents the most complicated case. It started after the World War II, as the result of Armenian minorities forced out of Turkey initially into the Middle East. Then because of tendencies of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism in Arab countries, many Armenians were driven away “first from Egypt, then Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran” (Takooshian, 2015).
This wave of immigration took the longest time and brought to the asylum in the United States most of the Armenian-ancestry population. Because Armenia was always a small county, and among some other nations the Armenians were suppressed, the immigrants settled in the US unevenly, choosing such cities as Los-Angeles and Philadelphia as their primary destination. Nevertheless, in the course of time, some of the Armenian immigrants’ descendants moved deeper into the country, including local communities in Arizona.
However, we cannot still suggest that the third wave of immigration is over. There are signs of the constant increase of the American Armenians in different communities around the US. The reason for that lies in the political and cultural background, as well as the unstable situation in the region. However, it is all the more important to analyze the principles of cultural assimilation of the ethnic community of American Armenians and to analyze the challenges and issues that the society faces in this case.
Contextual background: values and religious beliefs
The Armenian Apostolic Church that was formed in the county and is recognized as belonging to the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. It is one of the oldest branches amongst the Christian communities. Its founders were apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. It has been quite influential in the area of its origin, even though it was surrounded mostly by the countries with Islam as their major religion.
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That is the reason why the religious beliefs are one of the grounds for the unity of the ethnic Armenians and the Armenian immigrants descendants throughout the world. In Arizona, the religious community of the Armenian Apostolic Church attends St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church of Arizona. Apart from being the major cultural symbol of Armenians in the state, this church also organizes various cultural events for everyone who wants to attend them, is engaged in the charity work, and helps the community to celebrate different religious and mundane holidays. The activities of the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church include opening the sanctuary in Scottsdale, and different fundraising events for various charity initiatives (Griffiths, 2008).
The role of the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church for the American Armenians of Arizona cannot be overlooked. 80 per cent of the Armenians practicing religion belong the Orthodox Church. The church was chosen as a place for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the formation of an Armenian community in the state (Griffiths, 2008).
It is one of the means to preserve the cultural identity of the community, and it provides a great insight into the Armenian culture and the shared beliefs for those who wants to find out more about it. Furthermore, and most importantly, the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as other Armenian Orthodox Churches, does not impose any major restrictions and dogmas concerning the lifestyle and social issues of its followers, including their sexuality or birth control, and it certainly does not portend to make an impact on non-Armenians.
Nevertheless, the life of the Armenian community in America could not be possible without socialization and cultural assimilation in some aspects. The important nuance here is that the general cultural background of the Christian values, as well as being the immigrants because of the political and religious reasons provides the Armenian community with the system of beliefs and values that resonate with the American culture.
In this respect, it is important that there are no reasons for any cultural conflicts or misunderstandings. Moreover, the boundaries that separate such smaller communities are mostly imposed by their members. In fact, there substantial differences throughout the Armenian population in the US concerning their perception of their own social status, including the division between people of different ethnicities. Those boundaries can only appear because of the Armenian historical heritage that formed some of their beliefs of the social worlds and interactions with other nations and cultures (Mead, 1978).
Historically speaking, many Armenians lived among the nations with the different religious backgrounds, mostly among the Muslims, in the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey, and alongside various Middle Eastern ethnicities. That fact formed the presupposition in the historical memory of the Armenian nation. Thus, the mental separation from some American cultural that can be occasionally observed in the Armenian community is a result of the externally imposed factors of the historical nature.
However, those tendencies are the prerogative of the elder generations of the American Armenians, mostly the immigrants of the second or the beginning of the third waves of immigration. The reason for the positive dynamics in the sphere of the cultural socialization is connected with the development and recognition of the national identity and freedom of the community, where the descendants of the Armenian ancestry can equally participate within and outside its borders (Bakalian, 1993).
Observations during the cultural event and associated preconceptions
The St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church is known to organize the events to the celebration of the various occasions, including the St. Valentine’s Day. This year, however, it was on the same day as the Feast of Candlemas, one of the religious holidays of the Orthodox Church. There were no events at the Armenian Educational and Social Center, but the evening service at the church itself provide deep insight into the perception of their cultural and religious heritage by the American Armenians. The event seemed more of a social gathering of the members of the community rather than mysterious religious service.
This fact immediately ruined the misconception about the way the services in the Armenian Orthodox Church take place. Since Armenia is located quite close to the Middle East, people unfamiliar with this culture would expect the ceremony to have more oriental hints. However, there was not a lot of oriental motives, and overall, the event seemed more celebratory than solemn or gloomy. However, because of the fact that, at the time, all the Orthodox Churches had the Great Lent, the ceremony was kept quite plain and undemanding.
The main preconception of the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church as the place that would be unwelcoming to strangers was ruined as well. It may be a close ethnic minority community in terms of how its members usually settle in the same block and districts, but it is socially open to the outsiders of the ethnic group.
Talking about the social parameters of the people who attended the event, there were American Armenians of the entirely different backgrounds in terms of age, gender, and social status. It underlines the important aspect that American Armenian people, despite the social differences, preserve their culture. In many ways, it describes the psychology of the national identity. Because of the historical memory of the nation, the tragedy of the genocide, and the habit of living alongside the nations with the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, the community of the American Armenians tends to stay close together, yet is not unfriendly to the strangers (Bakalian, 1993).
Another important observation concerned the fact that children at the event at the church seemed very respectful to the parents. However, from the point of view of an observer, it seemed not like the obedience when the child is, in some ways, suppressed by the adults authority or out of fear, but listening to the elders out of respect. The reason for such value system can also be found in the fact that nationalities, such as Armenian and Jewish represent the cultures, in which the children are less rebellious since they both has been at the edge of the extinction (Mead, 1978).
This fact also has the reflection on the workplace behavior and any other kinds of the social interactions that need the feeling of commitment and the ability to follow instructions. Due to this, despite a certain level of isolating the communities, the American Armenians are improving the situation in the education and social status of the community members. For example, more than 80 percent of the children with the Armenian ancestry plan to go to college, and a significant part of the community speak English not only in social situations but also at home, which was not previously a tendency.
Results of the interview revealed challenges, and considerations for the practical application
The interview revealed that there are some challenges concerning the perception of the community of American Armenians in the society. Alongside the already mentioned association with the Middle Eastern countries, the community is also often attributed a connection to the former Soviet countries and the values associated with the USSR. However, in the opinion of the interviewee, the identity of her group has nothing to do with the values of the neighboring countries of Armenia.
In spite of the fact that the interviewee admitted that the community of the American Armenians is quite diverse within itself, and people in her ethnic group have different everyday occupations, there are societal restrictions that challenge expressing the national identity. For example, the American Armenians of different social classes have different levels of freedom in expressing their cultural identity. The descendants of the second and third generation of the Armenian immigrants from the well-off families with a higher social are more proud of their cultural heritage (Bakalian, 1993).
The community is acculturated in Arizona, and there is a positive level of interaction with the other social groups, but some of the members of the ethnic group feel insecure in the social institutions or the workplace because of their ancestry. The reason for this problem lies in the misconceptions and lack of the cultural knowledge in the society. This problem requires special attention in the workplaces and at the schools with a high level of diversity.
The Armenian civilization developed its culture and history in the process of interaction with other nations, which reflected on the exceptional unity amongst the community of the American Armenians. Some of the important aspects of the system of values in this ethnic community come from the religious background since 80 % of all the Armenians practicing religion adhere the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is recognized as a branch of Orthodox Christianity.
The Armenian Orthodox Church does not impose guidance on its followers in questions concerning their lifestyle. Apart from religious influences, the life of the Armenian community in America would not be possible without socialization. Despite generally molding in with the majority of the population, there are some challenges for the American Armenians of different social classes since they have different levels of freedom in expressing their cultural identity.
The interview with the member of the community revealed that some of the members of the ethnic group feel insecure in the social institutions or the workplace because of their ancestry. Therefore, this issue needs to be addressed both from the inside the community and on the outside, in the workplaces and social institutions, where people of the different cultural ancestries interact.
Bakalian, A. (1993). Armenian-Americans. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Griffiths, L. (2008). Arizona’s Armenian Christian community turns 50. The East Valley Tribune. Web.
Mead, M. (1978). Culture and commitment: The new relationships between the generations in the 1970s. New York, NY: Anchor Press.
Takooshian, H. (2015). Armenian Americans. Web.