A Bite!

After I didn’t get any semblance of a response from either of the two entities I initially wanted to virtually interview, I decided to take matters into my own hands and send inquiry e-mails to a series of Armenian schools located in California.

Although only one school gave me any sort of reply, I was so pleased that the response was from the principal, Zar Der Mugrdechian, from the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School in Clovis, CA. My hometown! Granted, I didn’t know the school existed when I grew up there. Still, it doesn’t surprise me that an Armenian school exists back home, seeing as how Wikipedia says the number of Armenians currently living in Fresno is somewhere between 25-30,000. It even ranks 64 on City-Data.com’s list of top 101 U.S. cities with the most residents born in Armenia. 🙂

To get back to my original point, the principal has linked me to two teachers at the school who might be willing to give me some information/a personal insight about schooling in Armenia and students/families who identify with the culture.

Wish me luck!

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What Mt. Ararat Means to Armenians

Notice the mountain prominently displayed on this blog.

Some background points:
-In Armenian mythology Mt. Ararat is the home of the Gods, similar to Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology.
-In the Bible, Mt Ararat was the first landmark Noah saw after he escaped the great flood.

Mt. Ararat is a prominent feature in the skyline of Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan. It is also a prominent symbol of Armenians’ national identity.

However, the symbol is a heavy one. According to the speaker in the following video, “Ararat is the main source of pain and suffering for Armenians.” For your convenience, I have excerpted some major points from the last few minutes of this video.

“Under the 1921 agreement signed by Soviet and Turkish leaders, the symbolic mountain was left on the other side of the border.”

“The mountain today, it is in the territory of Turkey but still it continues to be an Armenian symbol. When Armenian people are asked about their national identities, they start with Mt. Ararat.”

“The fact that Ararat is no longer in their territory also serves as a reminder of the greatest tragedy of the country’s people: The Armenian Genocide. ‘Genocide’ is the word used in Armenia to describe the policy pursued by the Ottoman Empire towards ethnic Armenians from the late 19th century through to the 1920s.”

During and after World War I – in the span of about 30 years – approximately 1.5 million Armenians are widely believed to have been brutally killed. Armenians were a threatened minority at the time. They were prosperous Christians with a distinct culture and the primary effort of the genocide was to destruct that. In the process, Armenian cemeteries were flattened and Armenian churches/monasteries were obliterated or simply converted into mosques.

Turkey officially defends Ottoman rulers that have been accused of genocide as if they were still around to be defended. Many Turks feel insulted and strongly believe that many claims are unfounded. The fundamental problem, according to Armenians: Turkey tries to deny this shameful page of its own history rather than facing it, but Armenians have no intention of rewriting history or neglecting what they feel to be a major event in their true story. (Update 12/8: This conflict is quite a prevalent theme in Armenian news. Read this article about current attempts at reconciliation on the issue.)

There is an American connection in all this: a Jewish U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire named Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau gathered reports from American consuls in different areas of the Empire that documented the various massacres and deportations He was suspect of the sheer number of Armenians dying of “natural causes.” He informed the U.S. government of the Ottoman government’s activities and asked it to intervene. Still, at the time the U.S. remained a neutral power in the conflict.

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Culture Crossing

After participating in an in-class discussion on cultural etiquette, I decided to do a little investigation into what behaviors might be expected (or considered rude) in Armenia.

First off, I was terrified that I was going to run across a website that proclaimed at the top of the page: “WARNING!  WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS AT ARMENIAN PUBLIC EVENTS!” After all, after I had snapped a few shots with my camera at the festival but quickly realized that I was the only one in my field of vision even carrying a camera. Not to mention I was taking photos of children.

In the United States, awards ceremonies and ballet recitals are like press conferences. (C) STROINSKI.PL

Fortunately, nothing about taking photos has jumped out and chided my actions. One thing I did draw a connection to when reading this website was the following statement:

  • “In Armenia, people tend to be very direct and say exactly what they want to say.  There is usually no holding back on what one needs to say. A visitor must not take this to heart, as it is a special part of the Armenian culture.  There are no “going around the concepts”; the communication is direct.”

When I read that, I immediately recalled a brief interaction I had with a woman who was ringing up customers at the festival’s food table. After I bought my food she asked me if I wanted a drink. I looked at what I believed to be the drink options next to her (a bottle of water, a can of Sprite, and so on) and said, “No thank-you.” After all was said and done, I realized that she was the person giving out the drink tickets for the alcoholic beverages at another booth across the room. Embarrassed, I went back through the line and asked her if I could purchase some drink tickets.

She looked at me, eyebrows raised, and said, “Is that all you’re going to get?”
I responded, “Well, yes. I bought food already but I thought you were only selling the drinks here on the table. Now I want drink tickets so I can buy a drink over there.”
She sighed and said said, “So you’re not going to buy anything else with the tickets?” (As if to suggest that I inconvenienced her enough so that I should make amends by purchasing more food items.)
I responded, “Well I suppose I COULD buy more, but–“
And she cut me off with something along the lines of, “No. Fine. Whatever,” and rang me up again.

In reflection, I realize that I haven’t had too many people shut me down for trying to buy a drink, even under a circumstance such as that one. But perhaps this woman has grown up in a culture where blatantly glaring at a customer is considered normal.

Some other things I noticed from the Culture Crossing website that might be helpful for me to know in a classroom setting:

  • “While talking, no matter the conversation, touching is not done unless someone knows the other party well.  The regional areas are more intimate in their conversations than the metro-areas.”
  • “Don’t be surprised if someone ‘pets’ you during a conversation. It usually is a sign that one is adored.”
  • “People tend to speak to one another at a very close distance compared to what a Westerner may be used to.  When interacting with business colleagues an arm’s length of space is acceptable, but when speaking to the family members, friends or people of the opposite sex it is less than the arm’s length.”
  • “Making a fist and placing the thumb between the index and middle finger is an obscene gesture.”
  • “When receiving a gift you generally wouldn’t open it in public. It is desirable that gifts be wrapped but not obligatory.”

In other news: I’m a little bummed that I haven’t gotten any responses yet from the people I e-mailed regarding educational experiences in Armenia. I’m considering looking around online to see if I can find anyone else who might want to help me out with that.

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Armenian Festival “Immersion Experience”

Today I attended the festival I mentioned in my first post. I enjoyed myself!
My favorite part was probably the delicious hummus, the flavorful
chicken kabob and — yes– the authentic Armenian lager.
(Apparently I have no trouble getting my culture on.)

I also enjoyed watching all the dancing! When I arrived, the “dance floor” was open to anyone who wanted to boogie. I wasn’t brave enough to jump in on the fun,
but did love watching others participate in a form of dancing that was obviously deeply rooted in their heritage. I also started to feel a little gypped that cultural dancing, in this fashion, was never a part of my own upbringing.

I got a kick out of watching the kids do organized dances.

(If I’m not mistaken, the teens in the photo above are actually doing a Moldavian dance.)

Other highlights included watching a gentleman get dunked in the dunk tank, watching the children frolic around with face paint and having a conversation with a woman from the Cosmic Ray Division. I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her childhood experiences attending school Armenia and she said she would be happy to. I hope she responds to the e-mail I sent! I also ran across a booth for KZV Armenian School, looked through some of their merchandise, picked up a flier and
sent them an e-mail with a similar inquiry.

All in all, I would say my cultural “immersion experience” was successful, though I did feel a little bit like an outsider. (For some reason, I seemed to be the only one holding a camera and snapping pictures… I hope that wasn’t a faux pas of some sort.) However, so many people attended the event that I don’t think I stuck out like a sore thumb.

More later!

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Some Basic Information

I’ve started to compile some basic information (mostly from the CIA World Factbook) as a foundation for further exploration.


Population: 2,967,975 (CIA estimate as of July 2011)

Density: 109 Inhabitants/km² (The Federation of International Trade Associations)

Location: Southwestern Asia, between Turkey (to the west) and Azerbaijan

Dominant Language(s):
Armenian (official) 97.7%, Yezidi 1%, Russian 0.9%, other 0.4% (2001 census)

Age Breakdown:
0-14 years: 17.6% (male 279,304/female 242,621)
15-64 years: 72.4% (male 1,006,312/female 1,141,430)
65 years and over: 10.1% (male 112,947/female 185,361)
(2011 est.)

Income Breakdown:
Population below poverty line: 26.5% (2006 est.)
Unemployment Rate – 7.1% (2007 est.)
Country comparison to the world: 73

Agriculture: 46.2%
Industry: 15.6%
Services: 38.2% (2006 est.)

GNI per capita (US$, 2009) – 3,100

Exchange rates – drams (AMD) per US dollar:
374.29 (2010)
363.28 (2009)
303.93 (2008)
344.06 (2007)
414.69 (2006)

Literacy (definition: age 15 and over can read and write)
Total population: 99.4%
Male: 99.7%
Female: 99.2%
(2001 census)

School Life Expectancy (Primary to Tertiary Education)
Total: 12 years
Male: 12 years
Female: 13 years (2009)

Some more interesting facts, a la the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

Number of state-owned general schools operate in the Republic of Armenia:1,429
21 are primary schools
147 are 8-year basic schools
1,261 are complete secondary schools
About 115 schools among the high schools have the status of a college.

Number of staff in general schools: 56,072
85% are women

National teacher/student ratio: 1:10
National administrative staff/student ratio: 1:20 (low compared to the numbers which indicate developing countries: 1:17 and 1:25, respectively)

Education Level of Teaching Staff:
~73% of the teaching staff are university graduates
17.2% are graduates of pedagogical colleges
1.3% have bachelor degrees
5% are graduates of non-pedagogical universities
3.5% are graduates of other colleges.

Teacher Salaries
-Have decreased 14% against indicator for 1991, but still slightly higher than average salaries of staff in other State-funded institutions
-General education primarily funded by national budget

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Today I took my first steps in organizing my quest to learn more about the students in California who identify with the Armenian culture. I’m currently planning out my “immersion experience,” which entails participating in a cultural activity. I had hoped to attend a festival held this weekend in San Francisco, but the accumulating exhaustion of starting school and memorializing my step-dad has caught up with me and I’ll probably end up going to this one in Cupertino next weekend.

Even though these events are supposed to cater to people wanting to learn more about Armenian culture — and I know this is kind of the whole purpose of this assignment — I’ll still admit that I’m a little nervous I’ll be the only non-Armenian there. Is that silly?

Some observations, thus far:
I also spent some time today on background work: demographics, schooling, etc.

Although I was raised in the Central Valley, where I knew MANY Armenians (including a favorite teacher!), I know very little about Armenian culture. I was immediately surprised to discover that, as of the 2001 census, Armenia’s literacy rate is 99.4% and that there is very little distinction between the male literacy rate (99.7%) and the female literacy rate (99.2%).

I was also surprised to find some preliminary readings showing that parents and the community at large share a respect for the education system in Armenia. For instance, this posting  on the “Tour Armenia” website mentions, “Parents take deep interest in their children’s education, and teachers sometimes become part of the extended family.”

I’m still looking for a wealth of information on that topic, though. I’m no longer in close contact with any of my Armenian classmates or teachers, so I may have to find most of my information on that topic online. We’ll see what happens!

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