Intersections: Identity and standing up where you fall

"Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools," wrote Salman Rushdie.

His words are the essence of what it means to be part of a diaspora, a word with Greek origins meaning “scattering.” It is the quintessential feeling that arises when someone, somewhere asks me the question, “Where are you from?” and expects a short, one word answer.

If you're part of a diaspora, there is no short answer, there is no one place and no simple explanation as to how you ended up where you did.

“Where are you from?” is a question I've been asked more than a dozen times in the last few days, as I find myself meeting a slew of new people at an international gathering of sorts thousands of miles away from home.

“It's a bit complicated,” I say hesitantly, preparing them for a longer speech than they probably planned on hearing. “I'm from Los Angeles,” I say. “I'm Armenian.”

After a few seconds, something clicks and they remember that tiny country wedged between so many others that is hardly identifiable without a magnifying glass.

But this presents a new problem.

“So you must speak Russian,” a few say.

The answer is no, I don't. Although I can tell you a few basic phrases and the word for ice cream — which comes in handy if you ever find yourself in the former Soviet Union on a blistering hot day.

“Oh, you must have left early on then.”

I shake my head. I was actually born in an entirely different country named Iran, a country caught in a war that caused my parents, who had probably had enough of seeking shelter in the basement after the noise of shrieking sirens, to flee.

A friendly smile is shared — a mutual understanding reached that our journeys are not always linear, or perfect, that our backgrounds explain so much about how we understand (and often misunderstand) the world around us.

I am hardly alone in my tri-brid identity. This feeling, marked by migration, of longing and sometimes not belonging is a part of what it means to be part of a “diaspora,” to feel American in one country and not so in another, to plant roots that become stronger and more permanent every day while you can't help but feel your leaves drifting through the wind, hoping to be carried back to a romanticized place called “home.”

In the next few days, I expect to be asked “Where are you from?” at least a few more times. I'll preface my explanation and prepare for confusion, questions and then interest and understanding.

But I like the dialogue. I appreciate the opportunity to explain myself, to give another person the chance to understand me and vice versa, to replace judgment and discrimination with curiosity and empathy — whose absence widens the gap between establishing and emerging immigrants and whose presence has the ability to form relationships and eventually a diverse, yet strong community.

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

It's OK to fall, but if we help each other up — even if it's as simple as asking someone where they're from, and investing time to explain our complicated backgrounds — we usually end up helping ourselves in the process, too.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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