Intersections: Breaking bread with two identities

Every Saturday morning for most of my life, it has been the sweet, lingering smell of fresh-baked bread, rather than an alarm clock, that has lulled me out of a drowsy haze and brought me gently back to reality.

In a ritual initiated by my dad, the piping-hot baked dough wrapped in a simple paper bag and delicately decorated with sesame seeds found a way home with him before ending up on the kitchen table, where its aroma swirled around the house until it found and awakened me.

It was devoured almost immediately, while the loaf of toast routinely used during the week for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that ended up in lunch boxes remained untouched. It wasn't just any kind of bread. It was barbari, an Iranian flatbread whose origins began many hundreds of years ago in a part of the world that I was born in, but that couldn't be any more different than the one I grew up in.

The marriage of my multilayered identity, including our beloved barbari tradition, is perhaps most evident during this time of year. On Saturday, a mad dash to the bakery, followed by a feeding frenzy, took place. Soon after, gingerbread men were made, Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun was watched on a loop in “A Christmas Story,” and presents were wrapped. And a few days after 2012 was ushered in by the Rose Parade in neighboring Pasadena, the holidays will start all over again for many families like mine as we celebrate Armenian Christmas on January 6, better known around the world as “Epiphany.”

Growing up as a child of immigrants is a harrowing experience, littered with pangs of insecurity and identity issues that stay with you. Pulled between two worlds, you find yourself not really fitting in anywhere, trudging through life with cultural issues that make that already awkward phase of adolescence and being a teenager all the more — well, awkward.

Caught between the Verdugo Hills and the Caucasus Mountains, barbari and toast, Christmas and Epiphany, your dual identities wage internal war with each other. Your sense of now and here competes with your parents' sense of then and there.

It happens that the weight of making peace with a multilayered identity is sometimes overwhelming. You feel an ultimatum must be made, a decision must take place; and embracing one surely means losing the other layers. But there doesn't have to be a sense of loss.

I am a child of immigrants, of two individuals who came to this country, just like all the others before them and after them from every creed, race and religion, with the hope of making their lives, and the lives of their children, infinitely better. For a long time when I was younger, a battle that spanned thousands of miles across continents, culture and tradition was fought within me. It reared its head between embarrassment and discrimination and told me to choose.

As I got older, I made peace instead, realizing that one layer doesn't have to invalidate the others, and recognized in the process that there's plenty of room for them to dance with one another without stepping on each other's toes. These experiences, borrowed and melded together from layers, makes the holidays that much sweeter.

It was with this in mind that I ate my Iranian barbari bread and watched my favorite American Christmas films. I made gingerbread men while Armenian songs from another time and place blared in the background. I drove through Altadena's festively lit Christmas Tree Lane and hoped for strength to deal with whatever will take place in the next 365 days. And less than a week into 2012, on a day that for me is more about culture than religion, I'll repeat Christmas all over again, the Armenian way.

My identity, held together by the marriage of many worlds, formed by experiences and padded by peculiar customs, has made peace with itself, all the while looking forward to adding more colorful, mismatched thread to its ever-expanding rug of life. And that's entirely OK.

As children of immigrants, we often think we need to take away or reject something to become whole. Adding those layers, though, is what ultimately makes us richer. Identity doesn't have rules, only dimensions. And that can't be bad, especially if it means you get to celebrate Christmas twice.

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