All posts by Bella Shirinyan

The Outsider

One of the most difficult questions I come across in my daily life is, “Where are you from?” A question I cannot respond to with one word or even a sentence. My answer, always followed by a small pause, sounds more like a short biography or memoir rather than a simple location. Having been asked this question hundreds of times I have memorized this memoir by heart and it sounds approximately like this, “Well…I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, but I am ethnically Armenian. I then moved to the US for a few years, and then moved to Armenia and have lived in Yerevan ever since.” Though it is not intended to, my answer seems like an invitation for many to ask more questions, it is followed by questions about the countries I have lived in, what nation I feel I am a part of, or where I liked living most. Though this question has many layers now, once it wasn’t so difficult to answer. 

My parents had originally moved to Russia during the dark and cold years in Armenia, where diversity, even in Moscow, was simply nonexistent. During this time, they heard any and every racial slur possible. Still, by the time I was old enough to understand this, more progress in diversity had been made. Though the average Russian still believed that “Russia is for Russians”, they had adapted to seeing non-Russian faces in the capital and some big cities. Don’t get me wrong, I still faced discrimination on the daily but it wasn’t nearly as horrible as what my parents and older siblings had gone through. Thus, as the years went on I felt more and more pride for my country, my Russia. I sang the Russian anthem proudly, picked up litter on “Subbotniks” for a cleaner Russia, cheered for Russia in every sport championship and truly felt, Russian. As my patriotism grew within so did the number of acquaintances, and all was well until the day the, then innocent, question was posed, “Where are you from?” The words flew out of my mouth at supersonic speed as I told them I was Russian. “No you’re not.”

The first time I heard this answer I was shocked, I tried arguing but my arguments were shot down by my mere reflection. I wasn’t “Russian”. I didn’t look Russian. I had darker skin and both my hair and my eyes were dark brown. This confrontation by my schoolmates pushed me to confront my parents, who in turn also said that, I, in fact was not Russian. I know that Armenians reading this right now will point fingers and blame my parents for not educating me on my Armenian heritage, but that is simply not true. My parents would take us to an Armenian church every Sunday, and beyond that, I had visited Armenia every summer. Though I was greatly exposed to my Armenian heritage, these constant trips seemed of no importance to me. I grew up thinking I was Russian, but my perception of myself was shot down by one question. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Years later my parents made the decision to open a business in Los Angeles and at the age of 11 I was told that I would be moving to the land of the free. Though I had learned English at school, and had daily visits from a tutor, moving to the US was one of the most stressful times of my life. I didn’t understand a word of English. Still my lack of knowledge of the language was not nearly as bad as my lack of knowledge of the etiquette or rather than the lack of it. During my first day of school I rolled my eyes at students slouching in their chairs, while sitting crisply straight. “Home,” I explained, “you sit like bear in chair you get hit with stick. You not bear, you student.” I went to a small private school in North Hollywood, the same school Meghan Markel had gone to, and whether it was fortunate or misfortunate, not a single student was Russian or Armenian. This pushed me to adapt faster and in a few months I too felt American.  Years went on and my English sounded like my native language, but I was not accepted by me peers a one. When I would visit Russia I didn’t feel Russian but when I went back to the US I didn’t feel American. I was “that Russian girl”. I didn’t know where I belonged. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Though I was happy living with my family in the US, the day our business visa was denied was one of the most joyful days in my life. I was given a choice to move to Russia or Armenia, but having had the luxury of not being hit with a wooden stick for not sitting up, I refused hearing the words Moscow and Bella in the same sentence. I decided to move in with my grandparents in Yerevan and attend the American International school QSI. On my flight to Yerevan I was overwhelmed with excitement and pride. I was going back to my roots, and felt that I was finally going to fit in. Not to give you too much hope. A week after being in Armenia I was shamed for the way I dressed and acted, by the residence of “my” city. My shorts were too short, my voice was too loud, and I was simply not “hamest” (obedient) enough. Lost and tired of searching for acceptance I gave up. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Now, at the age of 20 I understand that I don’t “fit in” anywhere. I don’t belong to any specific group of people. I am an outsider everywhere. I am an ethnically Armenian woman, with a Russian upbringing, and a mostly western/US mentality. I don’t need, nor do I ask of approval of any of the three nations. All three are a part of me. I describe this phenomenon as the Armenian Curse. Forcefully or willingly Armenians were spread out across the globe, and now coexist with hundreds of nations, which is both beautiful and damming. My one and only advice to those feeling the same way is to find people like you. Though it’s hard, I prose you when you will no longer feel like outsiders.