Transmitting Heritage

On raising kids with a meaningful connection to their Armenian identity

Parenthood is a deeply personal and complex experience, one that is often contradictory and wildly variable, even for a given person on a given day. But some aspects of being a parent are universal, like the nagging question that has kept even the most confident of parents up at night: “Am I doing this right?”

For Armenian parents living in the diaspora, this is often complicated by an additional worry: “Am I doing enough to raise my kids Armenian?”

This is a question that mother of two, Karineh Samkian, has grappled with a lot. Growing up, her Armenian identity was always important to her, but not in a very intentional way. Samkian was born in Iran, left with her family when she was seven, and lived in Australia and Germany before settling in Los Angeles at age 13. She now lives with her husband and two children in El Cerrito, California. “I think for my mom, raising us Armenian was more of a given,” she says. “For that generation, they moved because they wanted better opportunities for their kids. They were not so concerned about losing their Armenian culture or language…it’s who they were.”

Karineh Samkian, Haig Mikaelian, and children Miro and Anissa visit the Hovhannes Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan. Photo Credit: Karineh Samkian

Karineh Samkian, Haig Mikaelian, and children Miro and Anissa visit the Hovhannes Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan. Photo Credit: Karineh Samkian
Karineh Samkian, Haig Mikaelian, and children Miro and Anissa visit the Hovhannes Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan.

“Of course it mattered to her,” she continues. “I just don’t think it was as desperate as it is for us. For our generation, it’s like, they made this decision for us, now we have to deal with the consequences. It’s kind of scary,” she confesses. “I feel like a couple of generations on, we may lose it all, so that’s a burden that weighs on me.”

What Samkian is describing is a phenomenon that takes place not just in the Armenian diaspora, but within all displaced communities, over time. With each passing generation, the natural transmission of the heritage, language and culture fades, and any effort to maintain it and pass it on becomes just that, an effort.

Dr. Shushan Karapetian, the director of the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California, has a chance to witness this generational shift in real time. She teaches a class called Language in Diaspora, which is made up of a diverse group of students with various levels of language proficiency: some whose families have been in the United States for generations, others who are the children of immigrants from the Middle East, some who have just moved from Armenia, and everything in between. One student, who moved from Armenia a few years ago, finds the topics discussed in class, like anxieties around the transmission of language and identity, genuinely puzzling. “He’s a natural carrier of all this,” explains Dr. Karapetian. “But once that chain is broken, once things Armenian…have to be explicitly articulated, formulated, and conceptualized, there is an expected, but hard shift in the transmission process.”

Karineh Samkian can relate to this. She and her husband, Haig Mikaelian, a second-generation Armenian-American whose parents were born in Syria, knew even before having children that they wanted to “raise [their] kids Armenian.” But living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Armenian community is smaller and less concentrated than in L.A., where Samkian grew up, they find the opportunities for engagement limited. Their children, Miro (11) and Anissa (12) attended the ARS Armenian afterschool program in nearby Walnut Creek every Friday until the pandemic hit. When the program went online, the family opted to continue Armenian lessons on their own, with Samkian teaching them once a week for an hour. They attend Armenian events, play on sports teams affiliated with the Armenian community, and they’re regularly exposed to the language through their grandparents. Still, Samkian wonders whether these experiences are enough to cement an authentic connection. “I’m just trying to find as many ways as possible for them to plug in,” she says.

Many parents across the diaspora find themselves in similar situations. They genuinely want to pass on a love of and familiarity with “Armenianness,” but worry that there aren’t enough natural interactions with the language or culture in their everyday lives to make this possible. Dr. Karapetian offers some fresh perspective to these families. For starters, she says, set realistic expectations. “We can’t make ourselves, or our kids, feel guilty for being Armenian-American, or deny the hyphenated, diasporic reality we live in,” she says. “I think part of the problem is we’re trying to preserve what was for us or for our parents, and that’s just impossible.” Culture is not static, neither is language. Nor, for that matter, are our homelands or communities of origin. The notion of trying to raise our kids exactly as we were raised is a flawed one, even for those who stay in the same place for generations. “I think if we could shift our thinking and accept that every generation innovates and regenerates and shapes things, and [when migration is a factor] accept the influence of that new context, that might ease the expectation and the guilt,” she says.

If you, as a parent, are an actual practitioner of the things you want to transmit,” says Dr. Karapetian, “they will naturally be transmitted.

Dr. Karapetian is by no means suggesting giving up on transmitting your Armenian identity. On the contrary, she offers simple, straightforward, and optimistic advice for authentic engagement. “Whatever it is that you find valuable and beautiful about Armenian culture, practice it,” she says. “Do it with your kid, rather than just talking about how wonderful and important it is.” Whether it’s a love of Armenian music, an interest in history, involvement in Armenian causes, or a knack for developing modern spins on traditional recipes, do the things you love about being Armenian, and do them joyfully. Your children will pick up on that joy. “If you, as a parent, are an actual practitioner of the things you want to transmit,” says Dr. Karapetian, “they will naturally be transmitted.”

For Samkian and Mikaelian, who are avid travelers, a big part of what they value about being Armenian is the connection they’ve formed with Armenia. Almost every year before the pandemic, they would travel to Armenia in the summers with their kids, and they hope to return next summer. Of all the places they’ve been to, Armenia is by far the kids’ favorite destination. “Right now, it’s number one on my list of travel places,” says Miro. “We’re always with relatives there, we get to eat so many fresh fruits and sweets, we get to stay up late. I just like how free it is there.” Anissa adds, “I love that when I go there, I know what everyone is saying, even if I’m not fluent.”

Their faces light up when they talk about Armenia and they share several fun experiences they’ve had there. But what Miro and Anissa are trying to articulate is actually a word that doesn’t exist in the English language. Fittingly enough, it does in Armenian—it’s հարազատ (harazat), a word Dr. Karapetian translates as “familial + familiar”. Armenia feels harazat to them. While neither Samkian nor Mikaelian is from the Republic of Armenia, they both love exploring, finding the “familial + familiar” in a place that is in many ways foreign, and forming meaningful connections there. And they’ve clearly passed this love on to their children.

The harazat principle applies to heritage language transmission, as well. Often, parents (especially second or third generation parents who don’t speak the language fluently) are worried that their “broken Armenian” will somehow damage their child. According to Dr. Karapetian, we need to completely do away with this notion. “One factor people don’t realize is that children don’t view the world through politically identified languages,” she says. “They view the world through language-person associations. Early childhood is so important. If your child forms a sense that the people who are harazat are Armenian-speaking people…Your child’s not assessing your proficiency—your child is simply assessing the fact that love and all of these other basic human needs are met in Armenian.”

There is no monolithic way to “be Armenian.” Parents who consider it important to pass their heritage on to their children should first ask themselves what being Armenian means to them, and why they care about passing it on. A good, honest look in the mirror, says Dr. Karapetian, can help parents move past nostalgia for what once was, or lamentation for what isn’t being done; it can help you focus on incorporating what really matters to you and to your family, in the reality you’re living in. “The main message for me, as a mother and as a scholar, is simple,” she says. “I would like to transmit what I find beautiful and harazat. And I’m going to invest in whatever it takes to transmit that, so I can share it with my children, who are the most beautiful and harazat things in the world to me.”

The investment she speaks of—time, energy, and often money—can be daunting for maxed-out parents, especially for those who didn’t grow up rooted in an Armenian community, or don’t feel they have the competence or fluency to pass it on to their kids. But as Dr. Karapetian points out, you don’t have to be a swimmer to enroll your kid in swimming lessons. “Whatever engagement or investment there is,” she says, “it has to be meaningful. It can’t be imposed—or I should say superficially imposed—because we impose a lot of other things on our kids and eventually, they can become meaningful too.” Miro and Anissa Mikaelian are a testament to this. “It’s not like something I would ask to do,” says Anissa, of the Armenian homework her mom gives her every week, “but for me it’s like biking. I wouldn’t ask to go biking, but you know, biking is good for me and I don’t want to forget it. It’s the same with Armenian, especially since we’re planning to go back to Armenia next summer.” 


Learn more from Dr. Shushan Karapetian at AGBU WebTalks, including: Language and Identity in the Armenian Diaspora; and Language Use and Development in the Armenian Diaspora.

Originally published in the June 2023 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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