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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
This is Armenia.
This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
Not until I can see myself in it.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel