Report on Hye Geen Seminar:
"The status of Armenian communities living in the United States”
By Mary Terzian
The Conference on the Status of Armenian Communities Living in the United States, presented by the Forum for Armenian Cultural and Social Studies (FACSS) on April 8, 2006, at California State University, Los Angeles, was an original and bold step towards analyzing socio-psychological aspects of the community, rather than the historical/political issues of the past. The members of AGBU’s Hye Geen Committee, headed by Ms. Sona Yacoubian, and FACSS - an organization spawned together with Dr. Emma Oshagan, combined efforts to bring together professionals who provide community oriented services and therefore are aware of the present-day trends and problems that arise during the cross-cultural interaction of traditional Armenian values with local mainstream ethics.
After the opening remarks of Nayiri Nahabedian, Chair of FACSS and Chair of the event, and the welcoming addresses by Sona Yacoubian and Beatrice Yorker, J.D., Dean of College of Health Human Services, California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), Dr. Aghop Der-Karabetian of La Verne University, was called upon to introduce the theme of the Conference.
Dr. Der-Karabetian specified that in assessing the status of Armenian communities in the United States we need to recognize three important facts: the impact of acculturation and the stresses related therewith; the intra- and inter-ethnic tensions created by our tenacity; and the need for informational and structural data to assess, intervene intelligently, and avert problems where necessary.
Dr. Der-Karabetian expounded that though the “Armenian” appellation represents a group identity, the community is diversified in terms of countries of origin, religious affiliations and exposure to political, educational and human services activities that may create intra-cultural tensions. Also, socio-economic strata and ability to access physical and mental health services impact the process of coping with adaptation. The pervasive memory of genocide continues to have serious trans-generational implications. The change from collective and authoritarian values to individualism, as dictated by Western culture, creates stress. The sense of belonging and identity, compounded with dual and sometimes triple ethnic /national loyalties produces conflicts which are manifested by acting out, particularly among the young who are already burdened with the pressures of growing up. The need to create Armenian-specific data, apart from general ethnic studies, may alleviate the burden of the practitioners in dealing with problematic issues.
Dr. Der-Karabetian made useful suggestions on creating opportunities for health practitioners to come together, either in a forum or on the internet, for exchange and dissemination of valuable information, such as differential patterns of social and psychological adjustment; family violence and substance abuse (unfortunate but true); the creation of Armenian norms for a standardized measure of intelligence, adjustment, personality etc.; intra-ethnic issues and a list of similar activities that pertain to Armenians only, in an effort to make a fair assessment about the general and mental health of the Armenian community.
Dr. E. Andreassian, Ed. D., in charge of the Abstracts Committee, then came forward to introduce the four panelists of the morning session, emphasizing the fact that these professionals have researched ways and means to ease the safeguarding of our identity in the American mainstream.
Lisa Arslanian, Psy.D., stated that the general behavioral attitude among Armenians is to shy away from therapy, because of the discomfort associated with it. Aside from lack of familiarity with therapy, “what will people say?” is a deterrent to seeking relief. Ugly secrets are kept within the family, in order to present a pristine image to the external world.
Dr. Arslanian stressed the importance of focusing on our internal experiences because historically Armenians have been continuously traumatized, especially during World War I. Unresolved feelings of anger, sadness, powerlessness, rage, vulnerability and such, if not processed, unconsciously transfer to the next generation. Thus, we not only carry about our own sadness, but also the subconscious burden of the past. Looking internally allows us to resolve our problems and not to expect validation from an external source, thus reclaiming some of our power. Initially, therapy sure raises one’s anxiety level but it also helps us to stop our defensive reactions, take control of our lives and define our place in society, without any ambiguity about our identity.
Mary Harutunian, a Psy. D. candidate three months shy of graduation, presented Armenian Women’s Sexuality. She indicated that, within the Armenian community, by history and tradition, sex is considered taboo for discussion, both by the church and by the culture. Sexuality is considered a male need. As long as an Armenian woman is not married, she is not considered a sexual being, thus not expected to have feelings. Then, suddenly, after marriage, she must forego the cultural and religious suppression overnight, and turn off the shame mentality. Losing virginity for a woman outside the marriage brings shame to the family. Most young Armenian men do not seek women who have “been around.” They prefer to marry “innocent and naive girls, not very independent, submissive and obedient to her husband”, inexperienced in sexual relations, so that their control may not be challenged, or their inadequacies judged unfavorably by comparison.
Armenian families are primarily male dominated. There is a double standard that inhibits females from exploring their sexuality and encourages males to do so. The American environment runs counter to Armenian mentality about sex, with their open attitudes, overt display of affection, discussions of issues like masturbation or provision of answers to questions about sex. Thus, Armenian women find themselves in the jaw of countercurrents about sexuality, with no outlets to deal with their problems. Since parents are uncomfortable talking about sex, most resort to their peers to establish the norms within which they can operate comfortably, without losing self-esteem. Clinical therapy alleviates some of the problems encountered.
Loucine M. Daderian-Huckabay, R.N., P.N.P., Ph.D., FAAN, presented statistics dealing with the Health Status of the Armenian Immigrant, and the importance of providing culturally competent health care by becoming aware of an ethnic group’s perceptions, beliefs, awareness and sensitivities; understanding their cultural differences and determining what constitutes acceptable behavior. Some of the consequences of culturally incompetent care are tendencies for misdiagnosis; non-compliance to medical directives; and eventually patient dropout.
A study based on 432 Armenian individuals, fairly divided between men and women, between the ages of 19-92, mostly immigrants from the Middle East, indicated that the Armenian immigrants’ weights were significantly higher than those recommended by the Metropolitan Life Insurance guidelines. Twenty one percent were hypertensive; 8.3% were diabetic, 37.4% had chronic illnesses; 12.2% had heart problems; 52.7% were taking prescription medications. Of those with acute illnesses, 42.5% had influenza and 43.6% never had flu shots even though the vaccine was available free of charge. And, 69% never had the pneumonia vaccine even though 68% had health insurance.
Factors that influence adaptation, resulting in lesser stress, include the level of education and age at which they learn English. The language impediment is a major hurdle in the proper health care of immigrants. The uneducated expect the doctor to make decisions for them, whereas the educated participate in the decision-making process as regards their health needs. Even so, Armenians lack initiative in taking care of themselves. For example, 92% of women know what a mammogram is, 56% took the test; 86% of males know the reason for a prostate examination, only 32% took care of it. Average blood pressure among Armenians, caused by internal stresses of taking responsibility and external pressures beyond their control, stands at 138 Systolic, 75 Diastolic, which is below the Metropolitan recommended level and positively related to depression.
Dr. Daderian noted that the first twenty-four months after arrival are crucial in the process of adjustment. Those who receive some kind of social support suffer significantly less depression. It has been noted that immigrants start adjusting after the 27th month. Some, especially the older generation, have a harder time adjusting, if they adjust at all. Although Armenians become acculturated to a new country in time, they are highly resistant to assimilation.
Shakeh Yegavian, M.A., M.F.T., a practicing clinician in Glendale, indicated that Armenian couples have the most difficulty in the adaptation and acculturation process. Much depends on the willingness of the partners to keep an open mind in integrating new values, ideas and beliefs, and the degree of their acculturation to the mainstream value system. Unfortunately, fingers are pointed towards the wives, the males exculpating themselves of any wrongdoing. She highly recommended effective communication between partners, good listening skills, and restraint from critiquing, shaming, guilt tripping, and preaching. She expounded the values of nurturing and praise in supporting partners.
Ms. Yegavian argued that rigid sex roles, the male-dominated culture, the accepted hierarchy in Armenian families - where children have no voice nor options to differ in opinion, isolationism and disdain about other cultures resulting in ours-is-the-best attitude, are bound to have repercussions on family life. In the new society in America we need to let go of some of our beliefs and be receptive to the benefits of some mainstream values, to strike a happy medium.
Dr. Andreassian summed up Session I, moderating questions by attendees on lifting the burden of trauma, youth violence, over-sexuality, guilt feelings, gay and lesbian attitudes, dating and similar unresolved concerns. Dr. Andreassian recommended that in our efforts to resolve our issues, our ethnic pride, which is the heritage of every Armenian, should not be taken lightly. While we should pay due regard to the past, we should not remain captive to it, by fearing change. We should take the challenges of the present for the creation of a better future.
After a short break for lunch, Stepan Partamian, well-known in the community through his Glendale TV shows of Pari Louys and Tzer Gardzike, and nicknamed the “iconoclast”, posed questions that revive lazy cranial pores to life. In his controversial view of the Status of Armenian Communities in the United States, Mr. Partamian delved into the depths of Armenian consciousness. “Being Armenian is a choice.” he said, “We are given the opportunity to call ourselves Armenian.” Despite the fact that we are so proud of being Armenian, Mr. Partamian asked the audience what do they do? He proclaimed that hiding in the shadow of genocide was a lazy manner of dealing with identity. “Oh, yes, we were the first Christians collectively,” he said, “but we do not own Christianity.” Partamian’s provocative questions brought fresh perspectives into view. “Do not shut your eyes to realities,” he advised. Instead, he recommended that we own our ignorance, face the truth and accept to be educated in real-world terms -- to develop an identity now, instead of talking about what we were. “I feel like I deserve a Ph.D. on being an Armenian,” he joked aside.
Dr. Rita Ledesma, Ph. D., L.C.S.W., of Indian-Mexican descent, expressed her deep connections to other cultures like her Ocala heritage and her Lakota side, as well as the Sioux culture in South Dakota. She presented the benefits of Exploring Bonds to Culture, Place and Homeland, drawing comparisons between Armenians and these tribes of American Indians where celebrations of life in giving and sharing – like baby showers and weddings - are more important than saving money.
Dr. Ledesma stressed the importance of culture. “A rich culture is tied to the geographical places we come from, and we are very much influenced by their location, be it the Black Hills for the Lakota Tribe, or Mount Ararat for Armenians” she said. She likened people’s attachment to culture to a baby and his mother through an umbilical chord. So, traumas cause dislocation from self and destroy that strong mother/child and child/family bonds, making havoc of identity. She marveled that despite the fact that we all share traumas, such as the unacknowledged, unexamined wounds of genocide, we can still sit together and compare similarities because we have strength in our identity.
Houri Keshishian, M.A., explained the struggles of youth born in the United States – Immigrant Armenian-American Adolescents Searching for Identity. For them, and immigrant groups in general, identity formation is a struggle because they are well immersed in their own cultural origins. Adaptation is easier when the child is young. For adults it is harder struggle with acculturation, without assimilation, a situation that sets them apart from their American peers, creating a sense of being an outsider.
Armenian churches, schools and organizations help keep the group’s identity alive but it is predicted that there will be a loss of ethnic language, already in progress. Also, a break in Armenian values is taking place, with families moving towards equality, patriarchy diminishing, a deeper abyss being created between the generations – especially with offspring, notably boys leaving the parental home before they are married - dating, intermarrying and similar steps frowned upon by the elder generation. As the family is the cornerstone of social structure and the main agent to transmit language and culture, these moves away towards mainstream values erode the traditional family structure, causing no small concern to the older generation who have a harder time with acculturation.
Jack Der-Sarkissian, M.D., interpreted music from the French singer Aznavour to the American band, System of a Down. In his analysis he referred to Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross’ findings from her book “On Death and Dying” in which she describes the chain of reactions caused by trauma. Initially characterized as shock and denial, if the trauma is overcome, it is replaced by anger. Subsequent steps are bargaining, depression/grief and finally, acceptance. He concluded that Armenian music from 1975 through 1998 demonstrates the Kiibler-Ross theory.
As the genocide problem was not dealt with politically until 1975, the popular front became the expression of grief. Charles Aznavour of France created “Ils sont tombes” (They Fell), essentially a protest blanketed in laments, thus breaking the long silence of denial. Later, Alan Hovhanness, commissioned by the church, wrote the Norahrash (The New Miracle), a tribute to survival and the end of denial.
In 1996, Greg Bendian, a jazz musician, fueled by the Armenian massacres, produced an angry and defiant “After Chomaklu Was Desert,” a funeral melody, yet full of “powerful defiance and affirmation.” In 1998, System of a Down, an Armenian-American band of alternative hard rock music, released P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers), which, along with accepting genocide, now demands justice, reparation, resolution or revolution, if called for. The song epitomizes Kiibler-Ross’ descriptions of transition from self-denial and survival to anger, edging on violence; a revival from trauma; and a comeback to the bargaining stage for action. Thus, the resolution of the national trauma follows the psychiatrist’s designated path. It would be interesting to note the development of this process to fruition.
By the end of Session II, Melissa Moradi, MSW candidate, President of the Armenian Social Work Caucus of CSULA, moderated the question and answer period that followed.
The April 8, 2006 conference on the Status of Armenian Communities Living in the United States was unquestionably a successful event, judging from the number of attendees – over 140 - and level of interest in the topics presented. The conference was supplemented by sales of books penned by Armenian women. It is only unfortunate that there was a notable absence of Armenian men, with the exception of a handful. Does this phenomenon support Armenian men’s belief that acculturation and changes in the process are women’s responsibility or are there more serious reasons for their absence from such a constructive conference? It would be interesting to get the male point of view on this question.
AGBU’s Hye Geen and FACSS are to be commended for being sensitive to the needs of the Armenian community and for creating venues that promote a better understanding and timely discussion of existing issues.
Mary Terzian is a freelance writer residing in California. She is the author of The Immigrants’ Daughter published by Booklocker.com. Additional information is available at her website at www.maryterzian.com.