Longreads

Weighing the Costs — and Occasional Benefits — of Ethnic Ambiguity

Illustration by Katie Kosma

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Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | September 2018 | 16 minutes (3,949 words)

 

At the beginning of 7th grade, sitting toward the back of a column of brown laminate desks, I was first told I had an emerging unibrow. Michigan still radiated of summer. The September air hugged my skin. I was lanky and undefined, a soon-to-be teenager who’d bought into the culture of extreme sports, so I wore oversized cargo shorts and a baggy t-shirt that hung down to my knees. At the time, skaters like me were prone to wearing clothes that didn’t fit well, as if swimming around in an extra large negated the fragility of our young bodies.

Our German class, an introductory course more focused on the country’s culture than language acquisition, was mostly filled with young men. It had the reputation for being a blow-off, less intellectually strenuous than Spanish or French. Originally from Deutschland, Mr. E liked to play old clips of Michael Schumacher celebrating Formula One racing victories in glamorous locales — Monaco or Barcelona. This pastime lent itself to the underlying masculinity of the classroom.

One morning, while we were supposed to read a conversation from the textbook aloud with a partner, the boy sitting in front of me pivoted around in his desk. “You have to shave that or something,” he goaded, pointing toward my forehead. I spent the next five minutes trying to convince him he was mistaken. We ignored the scripted dialogue in front of us. He didn’t let it go. From then on the shrinking gap between my eyebrows became a daily topic of conversation. He brought other kids in our area of the classroom in on the joke. I worried that if I removed the fuzz I would only set myself up for more ridicule.

A week or so into that school year, the Twin Towers fell. I was in math class, algebra, which was taught by a skeletal man with a thick mustache and ponytail. He wore corduroy pants most days, a mug of burnt-smelling coffee glued to his right hand. He was the type to squat down next to the desk and talk to students face to face. We knew something was wrong when he turned on the television while we scribbled proofs in our workbooks. The class watched the news in stunned silence. By lunchtime, we were sent home. A few days later, my neighbor in German class gave me a new nickname: “Arama bin Laden.”

By the end of the semester, I started plucking the mess of black hairs bridging the space above my nose. I couldn’t tolerate the worms wriggling toward each other across my face, hinting that I was different. I bleached my hair. I found numerous ways to blend in, but nothing could change the five foreign syllables of my full name, the simple alteration of the first that transformed me into a terrorist.

I did have something of an out, need be. My parents, with remarkable foresight, had given me the middle name Joseph so that I could go by AJ. It was a failsafe designed precisely for such circumstances. A last resort for retroactive assimilation. However, I never used my initials. It always felt unnatural to me, having been called by my given name since I was born. Seventh grade was the first time I realized my name could be used against me. I learned that to be an unknown was to be other, that to be difficult to pronounce was to be threatening, and that to be ethnically ambiguous was to be somehow less American.

***

On Christmas Day 2017, my fiancée, Kelsey, and I were sprawled out on the furniture in the front sitting room of my parents’ house. The presents had been unwrapped, seasonal malted milk balls gobbled at breakfast, instant lottery tickets scratched and recycled. Even though it was mid-afternoon, everyone was still in flannel pajamas. It had snowed all morning and a fine powder kept falling. It swirled against the windows in the wind. My parents’ collie, Willow, slumbered between Kelsey and me on a plush dog bed. We spend a lot of our time this way, reading together. I was catching up on back issues of Michigan Quarterly Review, one of the many subscriptions to literary magazines that poured into my mailbox back in Chicago. Reading an outdated summer issue from months ago, the first thing I came to was an essay, “Hava Nagila,” by Naira Kuzmich. I quickly fell in love with the writer’s prose. Soon I stumbled across a paragraph that I read four or five times in a row. I underlined the words like a madman, striking through them at several points in my unsteady haste:

“With our ‘ethnically ambiguous’ features, being Armenian, specifically, means being confronted with American resentment toward a large variety of people: Muslims and Jews, Arabs, Slavs, Latinos (especially Mexicans), the French, the Greeks, Indians and Pakistanis. White Americans have confused me for everything and everyone, and when they didn’t confuse me, when they knew exactly what an Armenian was, they had very specific feelings about what that meant, too. Because to be Armenian in L.A. had its own xenophobic narrative: we were considered welfare-draining, BMW-driving, wife-beating, odor-reeking leeches of American generosity.”

In my 28 years, I hadn’t come across a more apt and accurate explanation of the confusion caused by my name and appearance. I thought back to all the times friends and strangers alike had mistaken me for being of mixed Hispanic or East Asian descent, the double-takes TSA gave my driver’s license, and the esoteric glimmer in the eye of a coworker or professor who could identify me as Armenian without asking. As I read on, there was this peculiar feeling that someone else had already written many of the ideas I’d always hoped I could communicate in my work.

I believe most artists recognize that their work can never be unequivocally original or devoid of comparisons, but in the moment I felt like an inept mimic of someone I didn’t even know. There’s a specific kind of awe that accompanies finding that someone else has said what you’ve never been able to put to words and I was fraught with feelings of inadequacy. My immediate desire was to read more of Kuzmich’s work. In envy, I devoured. I Googled her name and found a slew of essays and short stories published in literary journals that I had long dreamed of publishing in myself. There was so much to read. A life’s work to discover.

A week or so into 7th grade, the Twin Towers fell. A few days later, my neighbor in German class gave me a new nickname: ‘Arama bin Laden.’

By the time I clicked the third or fourth link, I learned Naira Kuzmich had died a month earlier, at 29, from lung cancer. She was only a year older than me. Whatever misguided competitive spirit filled me with writer’s jealousy immediately drained. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a funk, finding it difficult to explain why I was mourning someone with whose writing I’d just become acquainted. There was no way to quantify my imagined connection. I felt a disparity between how it was appropriate to react and how I felt. After dinner, I drank bourbon and beer with my brother and father and uncle. We polished off a growler of a local lager. It was enough to distract me for the time being, but I would return to Kuzmich’s work months later, desperate to understand my lingering obsession, and to figure out what could be gained from our shared experience.

***

In the fall after I finished my undergrad, I briefly dated a woman who enjoyed referring to me as “a morsel.” My vanity encouraged me to overlook that I was nothing more than a snack to her and the sex was good, so there was no reason to complain. She was also in the habit of referring to skin tones in terms of caffeinated beverages. She viewed my flesh as a caramel macchiato or some similar drink too sweet for my preference. Perhaps I was too young and naïve to recognize the ways in which she fetishized my ethnicity. Then again, when I was 22 years old, I was much more willing to cast such realizations aside for women.

We’d met working together at an Irish pub on Main Street in Ann Arbor. It was the type of place that wanted patrons to know it was steeped in authenticity. On Saint Patrick’s Day, the pub filled to capacity by seven in the morning and reeked of vomit before noon. We hid all the glassware in the basement. As I tried to find a salaried position with my English degree, I worked 40 hours a week as a busboy food runner and lived at home with my parents. Most days, having cleared dishes through much of the night, I slept late into the morning and watched Mad Men on Netflix until I meandered into the restaurant the change before dinner service. The girl I was seeing rented a sunny, spacious studio a couple blocks away from work and it became convenient to stay there most nights after chugging a shift drink at three in the morning. We were a mess from the get-go, both unwilling to feign an attempt at monogamy despite our mutual jealous tendencies.

In my first weeks working at the pub, one of the bartenders joked that it was divided up to be “Ireland on the floor, Mexico in the kitchen.” I got the impression this was a commonly thrown around phrase. My role was to ferry food and soiled dishes back and forth between the front and back of house. By then, the kitchen staff had taken to calling me “gringo” like everyone else, but on my first shift, the kitchen manager addressed me in Spanish, confident that I was Latino. After he found out he was mistaken, my ethnicity no longer mattered. Gringo was the simplest categorization. Over the following months, I learned how to balance hot plates up my arm. After a couple months on the job I could lug four or five steaming entrees out at a time. Heavy bowls of shepherd’s pie or Galway Bay mussels. I learned how long to microwave bread pudding so that it would be warm in the middle but wouldn’t melt the whipped cream atop it before it reached the table. I found the perfect ratio of cranberry juice to Sprite for the line cooks.


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Eventually, my buddy at another restaurant talked me into a busboy job down the road with better hours and larger tips. I had come by to meet him for a drink while he was searching for someone to fill his shift the following afternoon last minute. While he cleaned up behind the bar, I joked about picking up his shift. I paid my tab and left, but he gave me a call ten minutes later. They were willing to give me a shot, because, according to the floor manager, “I would look good for the clientele in a tight polo shirt.” By then I had stopped seeing the waitress from the pub. For a few months, I worked both jobs, but it started to wear on my body, and so I left my position at the pub and opted for being objectified in exchange for a heavier envelope at the end of the night. I’d bulked up from the months of lugging bus tubs and changing kegs. I was a morsel to be consumed.

***

When people hear my name they generally think of one of three things: William Saroyan’s collection of short stories, My Name is Aram; William Saroyan’s son, the poet; or the computer specialist from NBC’s primetime drama “The Blacklist.”

Not as well remembered as his contemporaries, William Saroyan’s fiction and screenwriting won him a slew of literary accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1940 (which he famously declined). Armenian-American, Saroyan’s family immigrated before the Armenian genocide, but lived in an area of California where many other Armenians settled after fleeing home.

Saroyan’s best-known collection of stories follows the exploits of young Aram Garoghlanian as he interacts with members of his extended family throughout his youth. These early stories are full of energy and humor. With poetic minimalism, Saroyan’s fiction brings hyperbolic personalities to working class Armenians. In the story “One of our Future Poets, You Might Say,” Aram is 8 or 9 years old and has to take a physical exam at school. Told in the first person, the narrator reflects back:

“I remember old Miss Ogilvie turning to Mr. Rickenbacker, Superintendent of Public Schools, and whispering fearfully: This is Garoghlanian — one of our future poets, I might say.

Mr. Rickenbacker took one quick look at me and said: Oh, I see. Who’s he sore at?

Society, old Miss Ogilvie said.”

Written before the birth of Saroyan’s son, Aram, some of the dialogue almost reads as prophetic. Aram Saroyan not only became a renowned poet, but also a controversial figure due to his minimalist style. One of his most recognizable poems, “Lighght,” a one-word piece published in the Chicago Review often dubbed “the most expensive word in history,” received a $750 grant from the still nascent National Endowment for the Arts and fueled the debate on dedicating federal dollars to artistic endeavors. Congressmen held it up as an example of wasted funding. Considering the older Saroyan turned down the Pulitzer based on a dislike for similar financial demarcations, that is to say how art is monetarily valued, I can’t help but wonder if he found his son’s profit distasteful. Yet, Saroyan senior must also have felt responsible for sealing his son’s fate. An artist’s zeal transmitted across generations.

Moreover, regardless of your aesthetic preferences, the younger Saroyan’s hallmark work should not be dismissed. The instant sensation the poet evokes with “Lighght” brings to mind the “gh” of his father’s Aram Garoghlanian, a hesitant line of consonants that create a parallel uncertainty in pronunciation. The repetition of the poem’s “gh” can be skimmed over as fast as a foreign name. In both cases, the ephemeral reaction is confusion, a snap instinct that something is not quite as clear as it could be, as if a lampshade has been tossed over the pure, singular syllable of light. A curtain dims what the eye wants to see and what the mouth wants to emit.

A tattered hardback of My Name is Aram has been passed down from my grandfather to my father to me. The copyright dates 1940 and the coffee-stained pages emit the odor of a sauna. I’m not sure if my grandparents knew there’d come a time when the name of Saroyan’s titular character would enter the family lineage, but my name has come to do much more than signal my paternal ethnic heritage. For years now, how I am identified has felt integral to my desire to be a writer. Maybe my parents also saw the artist when they named me. Maybe it’s nothing more than a coincidence. And yet, even coincidence often seems preordained. A name tied to a personality tied to a profession. The urge to look on and utter: one of our future poets, you might say.

***

For the first time in her career, Kelsey was recently tasked with hiring an intern for her department. While she sat on our hunter green loveseat Googling questions to ask in an interview, I fussed around in the kitchen, spouting out half-remembered facts about resume bias. She had already met with HR for training and they had told her more accurate versions of the same thing.

Clad in rubber gloves, I scooped stray bits of stir-fry from the sink into the trashcan. She glanced up from her laptop, “Do you think people ever pass over your resume because of your name?”

We talked about it for a few minutes while I finished cleaning, but didn’t reach any conclusions. I sat next to Kelsey and we brainstormed interview questions together. Before she brought it up, the issue was one I had never considered. Thinking about it later on my own, it’s difficult for me to imagine myself being filtered from a job search based on a name few people could identify as belonging to a particular ethnicity, even though I know this type of discrimination happens all the time. If anything, enjoying an esoteric name and all the advantages of white privilege simultaneously is likely beneficial during the hiring process. Most midwestern recruiters or managers wouldn’t possess the knowledge of Armenian stereotypes to elicit any type of specific reaction. In general, I tend to place fault on myself for most personal and professional failures. Missing the callback on an interview always struck me as a problem with my cover letter or resume rather than the result of another factor. Of course, in reality there are a million reasons some people get offered interviews and others don’t, and an Armenian name seems low on the list of likely sources of discrimination, but I have no way of being certain.

Throughout my short career in marketing and advertising, numerous colleagues across companies have convinced themselves of the correctness of a dozen mispronunciations of my name, to the point where they have to double check whenever we interact. In her office, Kelsey likewise must constantly remind her coworkers how to say my name. We repeat it over and over to those we meet. An introduction transformed into a litany. Whether spoken or written atop a piece of paper, the name remains unchanging, inexorable, a constant, but the meaning behind it differs from person to person. A positive or negative connotation can be derived in a split second, a flicker of recognition sparking a reaction.

***

At the 2018 AWP Conference in Tampa, I found myself with the fortuitous opportunity to grab coffee with an Armenian-American writer who had published a well-received first novel. We had messaged here and there on Twitter, but not in depth, so I was surprised and delighted when she asked to meet up. I found her at the Starbucks across from the convention center at the front of a serpentine line of people holding tote bags and conference badges dangling from blue lanyards.

I should note that meeting other writers fills me with anxiety. I fear in close proximity they’ll intuit that I’ve never read Moby Dick and still don’t know the proper use of the word heuristic. So I was all the more humbled when she asked about my writing as soon as we sat down. This is a pattern I’ve noticed with many writers I admire. They are kind, engaged, and supportive. We skipped the small talk and discussed a micro-essay I wrote titled “How To Exploit Your Ancestors,” which had been published by an online journal a day before the conference commenced.

“I dealt with a lot of what your essay was about when I wrote the novel,” she said. “But be careful, if you write too much about ethnicity, you’ll get labeled.”

The author’s warning did not come as a surprise. For the past several months, I had been having an internal debate over how much more I could write about the Armenian-American experience without pigeonholing myself for the foreseeable future. I worried I would eventually reach a point of no return and that my writing about ethnicity would become synonymous with who I was as an artist. Saroyan had this notion that one had to be publicly accepted as a writer to experience successes. While I disagree, I was concerned that if I was ever known enough to be perceived as a writer it would be too late to alter my subject matter and perspective. In becoming a known quantity and in losing ambiguity — really unfamiliarity — any future successes would become conditional.

I thought back to all the times friends and strangers alike had mistaken me for being of mixed Hispanic or East Asian descent, the double-takes TSA gave my driver’s license, and the esoteric glimmer in the eye of a coworker or professor who could identify me as Armenian without asking.

The author and I continued our conversation before scampering off to different events, her to sit on a panel and me to hang out at the booth for TriQuarterly. After our meeting, I thought a lot about how her book had been marketed. It was published the same week as the centennial of the Armenian genocide. I could only imagine the challenges she must have experienced in representing an entire ethnicity while touring and answering interview questions and signing books for lines of strangers who didn’t know a thing about Armenian history before reading her work. When we had first sat down she told me, “I hope you know I didn’t just meet up with you because you’re Armenian. I like your writing.”

“I feel the same,” I told her, having loved her book for a thousand reasons besides seeing my name in its pages. “I feel the same.”

***

Published in Necessary Fiction, “How To Date A White Guy” was Naira Kuzmich’s first published short story. I found it on page two of a Google search and was feeling a bit put off by my extensive literary investigation. Googling anyone feels creepy regardless of the circumstances and I worried my interest level had veered into unhealthy territory, but everything I had read was fantastic and I couldn’t stop.

One cannot and should not assume “How To Date A White Guy” is autobiographical, but given that Kuzmich was born in Armenia, there is a suggested familiarity with the narrator’s predicament. The story begins:

“First of all, don’t complicate things. You only need one card. If you’re a Persian-Jew, be Persian. If you’re a poor Arab, that’s great, that’s quite sad, but also a bit redundant. Just say which country, which village you’re from. If you’re mixed, pick the one with the most syllables or better, the one currently being bombed. If you’re American-born anything, remember: you are not American enough and you never will be. Pick a card and embrace it.”

As the narrative moves forward, unspooling a romance between a young woman of unnamed ethnicity and a typical hipster white guy, I found myself uncomfortably identifying with both sides of the relationship. In the end, the white guy needs his mate to exemplify her ethnic cultural identity so that he feels progressive. He tries to implant her foreign culture on himself out of selfishness, the urge to be more worldly. The second-person narrator is willing to accept this fact out of love, even though her family doesn’t bless the relationship and disowns her. In this way, Kuzmich writes Armenian ethnicity as a boon and onus, a weapon to critique stereotypes and a shovel to dig into her characters. Her work allows ethnicity to function as social and cultural currency. In this case, the narrator sacrifices her intimate familial ties to her ethnic culture, but still must perform them for her boyfriend to make him happy.

***

Armenians have legally been considered white in the United States since 1909. While a judge’s interpretation of race hardly makes a difference in how Armenian-Americans are viewed by other citizens day to day, the ruling allowed Armenians an easier path to naturalization. They were no longer seen as “Asiatic” by the state. However, American whiteness still doesn’t abide ethnic ambiguity. Instead, to use Kuzmich’s term, people will pick the most convenient card for you based on their own life experiences. Ambiguity becomes equivalent to individual malleability, an in-between space of identity, which for Armenians is further complicated by the diasporic condition. Each new interaction becomes subject to the predisposition of the others involved, thus all you can do is introduce yourself and act accordingly. This process is incessantly repeated, a quotidian gamble as to how anyone reacts. Introductions, inevitably, begin with a name. So you learn to say it consistently with confidence, the harbinger of where the confusion all begins. My name is Aram. My name is Aram. My name is Aram.

* * *

Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. He is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University.

Editor: Sari Botton

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