There are moments in life when we are confronted with a career opportunity that will determine our future path; a choice that presents risk and reward, but offers no guarantee of success. For Astrid Poghosyan, like so much else in her life, that life-changing decision came early. After graduating from high school in Yerevan at 16 years old, the promising young violinist understood the importance of studying abroad to further her musical career, and so applied to a government exchange program. Months later, she received a phone call notifying her she had been accepted, but that only one country had a position available for a musician. Anticipating a destination in Europe or perhaps North America, Poghosyan was shocked to discover the country in question was China.
“I remember thinking, what did they say? My mother then asked which country? I said China, and she said where? We both thought we were hallucinating!”
The extent of Poghosyan’s Chinese knowledge was limited to her favorite Disney movie, Mulan, which had captured her imagination as a young girl, inspired by the tale of the strong-willed protagonist. “I loved Mulan and would watch the movie five or six times in a row,” she remembers. “I said to my mother, this is the country of Mulan. Let’s go!”
For most parents, the prospect of leaving their sixteen year old daughter alone in a foreign metropolis teeming with twenty-four million people would cause crippling anxiety. Recognizing her daughter’s drive and determination, but also intelligence and maturity, Poghosyan’s mother, however, agreed, and together the pair traveled to Shanghai in 2009, unsure of what the future would hold.
“I will never forget the day before she left me in Shanghai on my own. She hugged me and said even though it will be hard I believe in you and I am so confident you will make it.”
True to the origins of her name, today Astrid Poghosyan has become a rising star with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and a popular television personality recognized not only for her exceptional musical talent but also as the first foreign employee in the history of the prestigious 140 year-old institution’s administrative staff. Outgoing and highly sociable, yet extremely disciplined, Poghosyan serves the Orchestra in a diplomatic and managerial capacity as the Assistant to its President, effortlessly transitioning between all three responsibilities in the course of a given day. “It has to do with my personality,” she explains. “I am always eager to learn new things and always knew I never only wanted to just play the violin.”
Poghosyan is thrilled to work as part of the Chinese Orchestra’s management at a time when the Symphony is experiencing a renaissance in popularity, attracting audiences of all ages including four year olds able to sit through a four hour Mahler symphony in awe and appreciation. As dedicated and passionate as she is about her performance on stage, what Poghosyan enjoys most she says is the opportunity it affords her off stage to embrace what she considers her most rewarding role, representing Armenia to the people of China and particularly Shanghai.
When she first arrived in China’s largest city, Poghosyan was frustrated by the response when she mentioned she was from Armenia. “They thought I meant Albania or Romania,” she recounts. “Virtually no one had ever heard of Armenia. So I said to myself, if I am going to stay here I have to work at this. I decided to use music to explain my identity.”
She started with a 15,000 Chinese character thesis devoted to the history of Armenian music, the first academic paper fully in Chinese on the subject. She has since organized numerous concerts with Armenian themes, and presented on Armenian traditions during a popular televised variety show. In each instance, Poghosyan has made the most of her platform and profile to help raise awareness of Armenia and its culture. Today she proudly recounts that local taxi drivers can now describe the country of her birth in detail. “I was so happy when I heard that,” she says when a friend relayed the story. “It was a really special moment for me because I feel responsible for conveying the right impression to people here about Armenia.”
Poghosyan’s journey from student to star, she admits, was far from easy. As the only non-Chinese student in the conservatory, she struggled at first to compete with her counterparts when all the lessons were taught in Chinese. She was given 8 months to pass an intensive language test or risk being sent back home. Like her childhood idol Mulan, Poghosyan rose to the challenge, and by the time she graduated, was able to speak fluently in Mandarin while continuing to learn Shanghainese.
As the first foreign employee to work in Shanghai under a new visa program for exceptional talent, Poghosyan was suddenly thrust into the public spotlight, appearing on billboards and in newspapers that highlighted the fact the first foreigner to receive the working visa was Armenian. “I was very proud of that, but I think the accomplishment I am most proud of is that I survived!”
She not only survived, but over the past nine years thrived, adapting to the challenges of life abroad with grace and understanding. “I realized Armenians have so much in common with Chinese culture. From the way Chinese grandparents look after their grandchildren or the dinner rituals devoted to the entire family, it is the same in Armenia. That really helped me adapt and adjust to the culture.”
Although music and language were the focus of Poghosyan’s life in the Conservatory, it was also important for her to find ways of giving to her new community. Along with her fellow students and those from other Chinese universities, she launched a series of charity concerts and activities titled “Turn ON Your Heart” for children and adults with autism and other physical disorders. She also initiated “The Power of One Bookshelf” project, aimed at providing one bookshelf of new books to schools in rural China to help educate but also inspire children to reach their potential.
You have to try many experiences and get out of your comfort zone. I believe it is better to try and regret than not try at all.
Poghosyan has changed considerably since the day she first arrived in Shanghai with her mother nearly a decade ago. But throughout it all, she has never tempered her zest for life and eagerness to pursue professional and personal growth. “In a city where the pace of life happens so quickly, if you blink you will miss something,” she cautions. “So you have to try many different experiences and get out of your comfort zone because doing so will open new doors. I believe it is better to try and regret than not try at all. That is what the fast-pace of life in Shanghai has taught me.”
As much as she has grown accustomed to life in Shanghai, Poghosyan admits she deeply misses the sense of belonging to a strong Armenian community. Fortunately, she says she has been able to fill the void with her membership in AGBU. After receiving a performing arts scholarship from AGBU, she was invited to participate in the organization’s 2014 Annual Gala event held at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York. She served as both the concert’s artistic director and a performer. “I couldn’t believe that everyone in the audience was Armenian!,” she says. “It was so touching for me to see this incredibly large community and how united they were.” I left New York feeling so proud to be Armenian, hoping that one day I can create a similar feeling of unity in China.”
The following summer Poghosyan traveled to London as part of the AGBU London Summer Internship Program, working with the Primate’s Office of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Great Britain & Ireland to help organize an Armenian street festival. “That is one of the best things about AGBU,” she says. “It unites Armenians from all corners of the globe, from Argentina to Armenia, Greece to California, and now in my case, Asia.”
Although it may lack a comparable Armenian community, Shanghai is now home to Poghosyan. “I represent China now to Armenians as much as I represent Armenia to the Chinese.”
Banner photo by Marc Ressang.