Intersections: Encounter with a familiar stranger

There's no denying that if you live in or around Glendale, you probably know more about the inner workings of Armenian culture than most people — whether you'd like to or not.

Thanks to 30 years of steady immigration, the city has become home to the second largest concentration of Armenians outside of Armenia, but lest you think that the Armenian American identity begins and ends with the Jewel City, you're mistaken. Either due to tragic circumstance or an innate nomadic nature, Armenians have been a part of the American landscape for centuries.

The earliest recorded Armenian immigrants to the U.S. arrived in the early 1600s, one of which settled in Virginia's Jamestown Colony. The 19th century saw the first wave of large arrivals of Armenians to the states, many of them who settled on the East Coast and slowly, starting with Fresno, ventured west.

Though the Armenian American population rivals British Armenian diaspora numbers, Manchester, home of Manchester United if you're into football (that's soccer to you), has been a significant stronghold in Armenian settlement, with many Armenians arriving in the early 19th century as silk merchants.

But this isn't about Armenian-American history. It's about how where we live has perhaps more of a hand in shaping us than where our ancestors come from.

On a recent late night in Manchester, as I checked into my hotel for the night seeking comfort from the cold that shook the bones of this So-Cal-bred journalist more than the average Mancunian, I saw the deep blue eyes and bushy-tailed eyebrows of a concierge, the dead giveaway that he could have only belonged to the people of my tribe.

Armenian eyes say so much without ever speaking. In them you can find pain and joy clinging to each other so harmoniously. They carry so much weight that we even have a sappy song that you can generally hear toward the end of our marathon weddings when the emotions and liquor are overflowing.

His Armenian name confirmed the Armenian eyes, but I didn't want to say anything at the risk of sounding strange. Glendalians might disagree, but the worldwide Armenian population is so minuscule, perhaps eight to 11 million at best — compare that to around 80 million Koreans worldwide — that meeting someone of Armenian descent in an unexpected corner of the world is overwhelmingly exciting.

I checked in and spent the day exploring the sights and sounds of Manchester, but I couldn't shake off the concierge from my mind. So before I headed up to my room for the night, I worked up the courage to ask him about his roots, only to be met with a slightly bewildered stare.

Yes, he said, he was of Armenian descent from his paternal side, but he's never considered himself Armenian, though his face and full name connected him to the Caucasus so firmly. Born and raised in Poland, he said he was Polish, and he was right.

“I feel American,” I said, trying to connect on some level with my new acquaintance when it came to nationality.

And it was true. In fact, in an odd twist, never have I felt more American than when I have been in Armenia.

“Ah, but it's not the same,” he replied. “America is a country full of immigrants.”

Our cordial conversation came to an end and we said good night. I don't know what I expected to happen from my insistence on discussing our obvious mutual backgrounds. He made it clear he felt no connection to his past, and that was completely OK, in the same way that I've purposely sought out and tried to understand mine.

I left Manchester that morning with a strange taste in my mouth and a yearning for the familiar warmth of Los Angeles, pondering yet again the concept of identity, and how we can't ever assume that it's a one-size-fits-all concept.

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

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