When your face don’t fit

Last week I was mistaken for the Ambassador of Greece to the Republic of Armenia. I do not know Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary H.E. Mrs. Nafsika Nancy Eva Vraila, but clearly she is a woman of astounding beauty, with a keen intelligence evident in her every feature. I can see how the mistake was made. And it was nice to be addressed as Your Excellency…

People like me and the Ambassador stick out here, because the population of Armenia is homogenous.  More than 95% are ethnic Armenians, from the Apostolic Christian tradition. Not everyone looks like a Kardashian–but most people do have dark and abundant, lustrous hair. Those of us of fair complexion are usually identified as Russian. We are perfectly welcome, but it is easy to see we don’t belong. Just as many Armenians have a clear idea of how they expect Russians to look, so many have an image of Americans in their minds, and not all of us fit the picture. When people here are first exposed to us—in all our splendid twenty-first century multi-colored diversity—we Americans can take a bit of getting used to, and not everyone immediately accepts and welcomes what they see. Families and schools have been known to ask for “a real American”. In village shops and small-town sidewalks, black people are followed and stared at. The scrutiny, the photos and the touching can be hard to live with, every minute of every day. Often no harm is meant. This behavior—though intrusive and unwelcome– is prompted simply by curiosity. But in every society there are some people who fear and mistrust what is unfamiliar to them, and in some cases here—as at home–that fear and mistrust turns into hate speech, even violence directed at volunteers. African American volunteers, although usually loved and well-looked-after by the families who host them, can be scared to breathe out when they are alone in their communities. Past experience for Peace Corps says the threat is real. I admire my colleagues for the grace and courage with which they serve, but it is no way to live. Volunteers of Asian descent report that they are often assumed to be Chinese, and that being addressed as Jackie Chan gets old. One of our cohort was told that “nobody here understands Chinese” even though he was speaking in perfectly clear Armenian. He is able to speak Mandarin. It is only one of 6 world languages he has mastered. He is not Chinese American, much less Chinese, just as I am not Welsh and you are not Canadian. It is not bad to be any of those things, if that is who you truly are, but we all like to be known, and recognized and seen as we identify ourselves.

Not that I minded being mistaken for the Hellenic Ambassador. No one has ever taken me for a plenipotentiary before and I doubt that it will happen again, for diplomacy is not my strong suit. I wish Ambassador Vraila well and hope I get to meet her one day, to thank her for her valuable work here and across the world. Nation speaking peace unto nation is a good thing. The better we talk and listen and travel the more we know. The more we know, the more open and welcoming we can be. We Americans learn every moment we live here, and are grateful for what our Armenian friends have taught us about generosity, loyalty, pride, problem-solving and making the most of everything we have. With luck, we, through the way we live our lives and cherish our friends, can show the value of respect for all, equality and inclusion. Combine the best of both our cultures, and we all get to live in love, not fear.

About Liz Barron

Returned US Peace Corps Volunteer (Armenia 17-19). Permanent address in Washington DC. Deep roots in Northern Ireland and persistent Belfast accent. Blogger, cook, painter, mother, grandma, Scrabble-player and enthusiastic world traveller.
This entry was posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Diplomacy, fear, life lessons, Peace Corps, Prejudice, Race, resilience, Safety, sexual assault, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life. Bookmark the permalink.

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