The bumpy transition from childhood to young adulthood is a notoriously tumultuous chapter in the life of the teenager. Along with the expected nuisances of rapidly changing bodies, academic pressure, shifting friendships, and newfound independence, the typical teenager must undergo the often excruciating process of forming an independent identity unique from the family and immediate community.
Today, the “Baby Zoomers” have grown up with a wealth of digital resources at their fingertips and, as such, have been dubbed the “iGen,” the “Internet Generation,” or even “Generation Google.” Many of these digital natives have taken social self-consciousness to the extreme, in search of the right labels by which to identify themselves within the online circles they virtually travel.
These labeling issues are further complicated for those coming from minority ethnic communities. Many struggle under the pressure of fitting into the mainstream community while staying true to their parental and ancestral roots, be it through the food, language, customs, and the sense of safety and validation that comes with the complete acceptance of the family and community.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, ethnic identity formation begins in childhood but consolidates in adolescence, which is linked to better psychological adjustment and overall well-being later on in life. Prior research has also found that those adolescents who report increased awareness of their ethnic roots also tend to detail increases in positive affirmation and exploration of their ethnicity. This phenomenon is referred to by some experts as Ethnic-Racial Identifica-tion, or ERI. An adolescent whose basic identity is grounded in their ethnic culture is found to be further motivated to embrace their ancestral values and traditions, while exploring other vital aspects of their identity in the larger society. Another crucial insight in the study of ERI is the positive effect individuals feel toward their ethnic group, creating a ripple effect in their own self-affirmation and group esteem. Study after study has shown that one’s ethnic label becomes a decisive factor in a young person’s life.
Nonetheless, many Armenian teens in the Diaspora, especially those without a diverse community, are left scratching their heads about creating socially acceptable labels. Some may feel isolated being the only Armenian in their neighborhood. Others may have a large group of Armenian friends outside of the classroom but may feel either invisible or too visible in the classroom setting. Without having an Armenian “crew” at school to support and affirm their ethnic identity, the stakes for healthy socialization can only increase.
When filling out standardized testing demographic identifiers, for example, an Armenian teen will often ponder what box to check: White or Other, or White (including Middle Eastern origin). Those parents of different ethnicities are especially confounded. The Biden administration only recently proposed adding a “Middle Eastern or North African” identifier to the next census, which many advocates consider long overdue.
Do today’s Armenian teenagers consider themselves “othered,” ostracized from their mainstream peers? Do they consider their Armenian identity a central part of their identity label? And if so, how do they cultivate their Armenian roots in a world that is fairly clueless to the existence of their “people?”
To help answer these questions, AGBU conducted focus group sessions among Armenian-American teenagers ages 12 to 18 to explore how this generation self-identifies and embraces its Armenian heritage in today’s ever evolving social environment.
All those surveyed were former or current campers or counselors of AGBU Camp Nubar, a sleepaway camp located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Here, Armenian youth from all across the country and around the globe take part in the opportunities offered by the great outdoors, while also learning the Armenian language, traditional songs and dances, even attending Badarak (Sunday Mass). Since the camp opened back in 1963, numerous generations have experienced the bonds of friendship over authentic Armenian meals, sports, games, and competitions.
The Church Influence
Almost all participants attributed their local Armenian churches as one of the primary links to their Armenian identity— and many claimed the pandemic altered this relationship. One 18-year-old shared, “I kind of lost touch with going to Church when COVID happened. And now I’m going to college ...” Yet, he still felt ties to the Church, notably during exam season. “Before finals, a few times throughout the semester, my brother and I will go to the Armenian Church and sit through the entire Badarak.”
Another teen who felt particularly disconnected from her Armenian roots also credited the Church as her sole bond to her Armenian identity. “I don’t speak Armenian at all, neither do my parents. I’ve lost touch but occasionally, I’ll attend Church with my grandpa and grandma.”
At school, almost all teens felt as though they were the only Armenian—an identity thrust into the spotlight in the cafeteria. “When I bring Armenian food to school, everyone’s like ‘Oh, what is that?’” Without skipping a beat, another teen agreed: “I definitely try to not eat near people, so they don’t bother me about it and I can just enjoy my food.”
I feel most Armenian when I have to explain my name, how to pronounce it, and how to roll the R’s. And I feel like no nickname makes sense for me, so I just let people say however they want to pronounce it.
One 16-year-old admitted to taking an easier route in the cafeteria. “Manti is my favorite food—but I always say pizza at school because no one is going to know what that is.” He has resorted to bringing ham sandwiches to school instead.
Yet, when it comes to sharing comfort dishes with supportive friends, all pre-teens and teenagers encouraged others to come over and share an Armenian meal. “When my grandma is over and all my friends are too, she’s cooking for everyone—whether they like it or not,” one teenager said.
Some campers regretted being the only Armenian in their grade. One female teen shared, “There’s not a lot of Armenians where I live. Obviously, there’s the church, but in my school, there are only two other Armenians compared to other schools.” Another camper shared this gripe. “Outside of my family, friends, and camp, I only have one Armenian friend at school—he’s quarter Armenian and doesn’t really understand any of it.”
Another teen agreed wholeheartedly. He shared, “I’ve been going to public school my whole life and there was never another Armenian in my grade or school. I went to a high school with 3,000 kids.” However, he felt this difference was his superpower. “This was kind of nice, actually. Most of the people knew who I was for being different, you could say. So that was kind of nice, but at the same time I felt different—but I kind of enjoyed it.”
Those with strong Armenian names commiserated over the constant butchering of their name, and while some have come up with nicknames, others have let these mispronunciations slide. One 16-year-old shared: “I feel most Armenian when I have to explain my name, how to pronounce it, and how to roll the R’s. And I feel like no nickname makes sense for me, so I just let people say however they want to pronounce it.”
Others, however, felt that these outstanding names drew the right kind of attention, especially from teachers. “My name is so different from all the other kids,” one 18-year-old shared. “Teachers have always latched onto me and remembered my name. I feel like in school, it was positive.”
The person who I was at school was not the same person I came home to. I kind of have a personality or a mask when I go to school to be like the other kids.
Many found company in their sense of frustration over their non-Armenian peers not knowing about Armenians. One 12-year-old camper shared: “When my friends ask me what my nationality is and I say Armenian, they’ll be like ‘What’s that?’ And it’s not talked about in school—even during heritage months, they never really bring up Armenia so no one knows what it is.”
Some felt as though they wore different personas in their school life compared to their Armenian activities. One 16-year-old shared: “The person who I was at school was not the same person I came home to. I kind of have a personality or a mask when I go to school to be like the other kids.”
Others felt their social media presence and online activism connected them to their Armenian identity, especially during the pandemic. One particularly shy teenager shared, “I’m not a super-active social media user—at least not to a public crowd. I don’t share a lot about myself with most people in general but I’ve been sharing more now with what’s happening in Armenia.”
One teen entering college worried his Armenian identity would slip through the cracks, yearning for his younger years and parental guidance. “I feel like it’s easier when you’re younger because your parents force you to do little things,” he lamented. “As you get older, you can’t. I’m not doing Armenian things every day—and after that, I’m going to get a job. It’s hard to keep that balance.” Other teens strongly disagreed with this sentiment, one, in particular, said: “I feel pretty balanced. I have a good thing going with the different activities I do—it’s a good mix.”
Others had issues within the Armenian community itself—some citing being late to everything as a pet peeve. One camp counselor felt strongly about the disunity within Armenian groups. “I don’t like the divide within groups. It’s like, ‘I’m an Armenian from Turkey, I’m an Armenian from Lebanon, I’m Armenian from Armenia’ … there’s so much division within that itself. It’s like you still discriminate within Armenia when at the end of the day we’re all Armenian. We’re so little as it is—we shouldn’t be divided because one person doesn’t speak Armenian, or one person’s not full Armenian, or other things I don’t like.”
Bonds and Belonging
Yet, having Camp Nubar on their side reassured them that they would be connected to their heritage and Armenian friendships for years to come. One 18-year-old counselor shared, “I’ve been going to camp for 13 years and I keep up with all my friends and I always will.”
I’m sure I’ll forget my high school friends or lose contact with them 30 years down the road, but my Armenian friends are the people I’m going to be best friends with and close with forever.
A 14-year-old camper couldn’t have agreed more. “Most of my friends assume Camp Nubar is just a summer camp. But it’s not—we have Armenian class and church on Sundays. It’s even better because you get to see people that all relate to you in a specific way, through being Armenian.”
A bright-eyed 16-year old summed it up best: “The friends you make at Camp Nubar are your friends for life. I’m sure I’ll forget my high school friends or lose contact with them 30 years down the road, but my Armenian friends are the people I’m going to be best friends with and close with forever.”
Though there are several universal experiences to being an Armenian teen, whether it be explaining to peers where Armenia is on the map or hiding a home-cooked lunch at school, it’s safe to say there are certain reinforcements of Armenian identity that will stand the test of time—like summer camp, church, sports teams, cultural groups—all of which factor into the most important of all—building the lifelong friendships that strengthen the community that shaped their identity in the first place.