Lately I’ve been reminiscing about what it’s like to live in a multi-ethnic society. I grew up in the Boston area, where a cornucopia of cultures, characters, and cuisines thrives. The area is filled with recent or descendants of immigrants from countries like Ireland, Italy, India, South Korea, China, Japan, Brazil and Mexico. Yet here in Armenia, visiting Iranians and Indians are exotic. If you speak English or a European language in public you might as well be from another planet, insinuated by the gaping-mouth stares and chuckles.
There really isn’t much diversity here, probably because of the conservative traditions and stereotypes that are fostered from an early age. Armenians are for the most part friendly, and that trait is increasingly more apparent the farther away from Yerevan you drive. But city hospitality tends to reach a point beyond which it wanes. Eventually the prejudice and haughtiness are going to emerge. Especially against Americans, who are generally perceived as being silly and stupid for some odd reason.
Here in Armenia diversity is apparent by the fashion and style people choose. In this society nearly all men look alike. The vast majority of them for instance wear black pants--that’s a give-- not to mention black jackets, shirts or both. Their hair is cropped short and they are almost always clean shaven, although it is common practice to wear a one or two-day old beard. So if you wear colors as well as clothing reflecting current casual fashion trends and let your hair grow long, you’re already making a statement. Men who wear beards, or even mustaches in the style of William Saroyan, are indeed few and far between—they are usually older, I would say at least 40. And young women who are roughing it with little or no make up while wearing looser fitting garments are indeed trendsetters. They are in contrast to the countless women who look like they’re hooking, wearing skin-tight pants, ultra high-heeled shoes, teased hair and cheap cosmetics caked on their faces. I really don’t understand why some women here choose to make themselves appear like prostitutes quite honestly; such women are very provocatively dressed. But when I see a woman wearing stylish, simple comfortable clothing I privately applaud her. She’s striving, even daring to be diverse that way, odd as it may sound.
I think many people also attempt to stand out with personal material wealth. More and more people are driving cars with each passing day, so owning a vehicle is no longer that unique as it was five years ago, unless of course you have something exotic and inaccessible by most Armenians who can afford to drive. Owning a Mercedes-Benz is still considered prestigious, and I’m sure most drivers aspire to have one. But why drive a Mercedes or BMW for that matter if you can drive a Bentley, Porsche or Maserati instead? The same applies for mobile phones. Nokia is a very popular brand here and the company’s phones can fetch several hundred dollars, or even well more than $1000 based on the prices I’ve seen. Materialism partly exemplifies diversity in Armenian society for sure.
Naturally foreigners and tourists are also signs of diversity, but with the worldwide economic crisis and an expected downturn in tourism they will undoubtedly be much fewer in number this year.
Several years ago after I graduated university back home and was trying to figure out what to do next I began working in an Italian restaurant as a host, showing people to their tables and so forth. The kitchen staff were virtually all immigrants from Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico. Many were seeking new opportunities, but some were simply saving up money. One guy who was making salads and appetizers all day long owned farmland in Guatemala. His goal was to earn enough cash to buy a pickup truck so he could use it to transport crops grown on his land. I remember there was a rivalry between the Spanish speakers and the Brazilians; they didn’t get along very well together. But it was great working with them and learning from them. Our conversations were always limited, with gestures and exaggerated facial expressions taking the place of words. And basically, they always made working there fun for everyone around them, regardless of whether there was a language barrier. Those same experiences I was having that the time were being shared simultaneously by thousands of other young men like me throughout the US, all in the same situation as I was.
Here in Armenia, to learn about life lessons and hear alternative, diverse viewpoints you have to speak with people over the age of 45. Those I know actually have modest roots in small towns or villages. Yet I have the privilege to work with a handful of intelligent guys under 30 who always seem to have something interesting to say. Many youth that I’ve spoken to are limited in conveying anything insightful.
Thinking back to days past occasionally makes me wonder how long I could—or anyone for that matter who is not born in Armenia—live in a mono-ethnic society in which people bow down to conformity and worry excessively about keeping up conservative appearances. For a change of pace, to whimsically lose yourself in a short-lived fantasy, you can visit the few ethic restaurants--one Indian, one Japanese, one Italian, one French, no more than four Chinese, or a Tex-Mex place that serves Margaritas made from instant sour mix. However, occasionally there are classical or popular music concerts given by international performers. But my favorite solution to get away from the mundane and monotony is still to jump into my Niva and drive as far away as I possibly can from Yerevan. If there’s no ethnic diversity to be had, I’ll gladly settle for environmental diversity instead.
Labels: Fashion, Personal Experiences, Thoughts and Musings