Embracing My Name

It’s week six already?! This internship is going by so fast. I find myself at this strange place where I look forward to August 19th, and yet, I am dreading the end just as much. In fact, I am having such a great time learning and interacting with different people at the office that I can’t really imagine any end. On second thought, my reluctance to see the end of this program might also be because the end means finishing up all my work, and the amount of work due is so overwhelming that I dread the looming deadline. Oh please, oh please August 19th, treat me kindly. Until then, off to another topic.

Strangers often say I don’t look Armenian; they surmise Hispanic, Argentinean, white, or even Swedish, but not always Armenian. Still, when they ask for my name, my “Armenian-ness” is an almost instant giveaway. For many years now, I naively felt that my name was an immediate disadvantage when it came time to making acquaintances or securing an internship or job of some sort. And it is, to a certain extent. For instance, if the name “Tsovinar Karapetyan” appears on a resume, it can easily be overlooked, compared to a “John Smith.” In early 2009, the University of British Columbia economist Philip Oreopoulos conducted a study in which 6,000 resumes were sent out to employers, each with a bachelor’s degree and four to six years of work experience. They were tailored to job requirements and sent to 2,000 online job postings from employers across 20 occupational categories, including administrative, financial, marketing, programming and retail. According to the results, those with English names (e.g. Greg Johnson and Michael Smith) were 40 per cent more likely to receive callbacks than people who despite having the same education and job experience, had Indian, Chinese or Pakistani names (e.g. Maya Kumar, Dong Liu and Fatima Sheikh). 

Still, despite such studies my involvement in this internship has made me realize, finally, that I cannot move forward until I embrace a name which carries so much historical weight and cultural meaning.

My paternal grandparents originated from the city of Bayezet in Eastern Armenia, but they fled to Novorasisk, a Russian city near the Black Sea, to escape the Genocide. Right after World War II, which my paternal great grandfather participated in, my great grandparents moved back to Armenia to a small town known today as Gavar, once called Nor Bayezet. My great grandfather was a contractor, and my grandfather, a bus driver, while my grandmother worked at a sewing factory, sewing women’s clothes. The war left my grandparents and the country in an equally poverty-stricken state, with little money to go around. From a very young age, my grandparents and their siblings were forced into manual labor. They owned a huge farm with many animals, and miles of potato and wheat fields.

Meanwhile, my maternal great grandparents originated from Adana, now a city in Turkey. My maternal grandparents had rich lands, and had been killed by the Turks right in front of their children. My grandmother’s sister was kidnapped and forced into marriage by one of the Turks. With both her brothers, my grandmother fled to Lebanon. Only in 1946 were both my grandparents able to come back to Yerevan. They drank milk from goats. They had no money for bread, and had to mix the dough with potatoes and flour, so that there would be enough “material” in the bread mix to produce enough bread to go around for the family. Still, my grandparents valued education so much that they walked miles on an empty stomach to one trolly in Yerevan, in order to get books from the library and take me to school. They worked hard for many months to build their own home, one block of wood on top of another. They shared such a struggle for survival with many Armenians at the time.

Of course I never knew this for a long time. I was born in Kyavar, and raised there until age three. My father loves Kyavartsis and is even convinced that Kyavar is the center of the world. They’re intelligent, hardworking, kind, and welcoming folks. Among Armenian crowds they are well known for heavy drinking, a subject of many jokes about them. I heard a pretty funny one recently. It goes something like this:

Two Kyavartsiner go to Chicago and are amazed at how high the buildings are. One of them asks, “How long will it take to the bottom, if I fell from the top?” The second responds, “Oh wow maybe two days or so.” The first one asks, “You think I can die from that fall?” The second responds, “Well, of course. Anyone who doesn’t drink for two days can die.” 

My parents named me after my great grandmother Tsovinar, a strong-willed, curt woman who everyone feared. As a case in point, she once poured hot soup on my mother’s head because my mother didn’t finish eating it. She was a bitter lady, but it might have been because her husband had died at a very young age, and she was left with three young children to take care of all on her own. She was a very independent woman, and had great discipline. She was organized, and everything had to go her way. It seems she lived so long, having died at age 95, because of her very strong-willed nature. My father would disagree, of course. He was convinced it was the shot of alcohol she drank every day that kept her going that long. 

I realize now that my name carries my family history, and relates so intimately with who I am, that the least I can do is introduce myself to a stranger proudly. I can move past feeling any embarrassment at its length or strange pronunciation. My name is beautiful, and so is my heritage. My people are extraordinary, and my name is no longer a barrier for me in my efforts to succeed in life.

Throughout this internship, I’ve come across many great Armenian minds, all of whom look Armenian and carry an Armenian name. Aside from involving themselves in the Armenian community, they have attended top schools and developed quite interesting careers. They are well-respected within both Armenian and non-Armenian communities. But I also don’t have to look far to see how hard work can pay off. My parents, who came here a little more than ten years ago, have established a good living for themselves. With her heavy accent and broken English, my mom worked two jobs and went to night school. Only a few units short of her Master’s Degree, my mother now holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development and is the head teacher at a state-run child development center in Hollywood. Even though I let out an occasional laugh at a particularly poorly pronounced word, I am extremely proud of my parents’ accomplishments. With a bit of shame and even greater pride, I realize now that my name carries this history of my family, a history of genocide survivors, immigrants, and the most humbling of human experiences. That such history can be condensed to the eight letters of my name is so profound a realization that it gives me more joy to be a “Tsovinar” than ever before.

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