San Francisco Armenians

Written by Oorenk Magazine on .

Timothy Leary? Gay men's choir? Harmonious living? How many shades and flavors do Armenians come in? In this excerpt from Oorenk Magazine, the authors go off the beaten path to examine the odds and ends of the Armenian community of San Francisco.

Armenian families gathered for breakfast with Oorenk.

We anxiously parked in the first available spot, as we were late to a breakfast party organized especially for us. Apparently Oorenk had become quite a topic of conversation. Whether due to curiosity or sheer generosity, Armen had opened his home for us and invited over a few friends.

We walked into a quaint and cozy living room with a group of 30-somethings gathered around a coffee table, talking about everyday things including food, work and life. There was so much to see and so many people to greet; however, all I could focus on was the ceiling and how low it was. For a moment, I felt like I had wondered into John Malkovich's portal.

Maybe it was the overwhelming warmth and energy in the room, but soon the walls disappeared and we were transported from 'the portal', smack down to the middle of "The City". Yes "The City." You see, in the mainstream circles of San Francisco, you don't call San Francisco 'San Fran', or heaven forbid 'Frisco' – many a people have been denied a Frappuchino for such trespasses.

The seamless intermingling of children and adults, all equally loud, mixing without annoyance or conflict was a refreshing sight. We could smell the food, but could not immediately find it through all the people, children and their large collection of toys scattered all over the room. It was definitely cozy.

The aromas finally led us to the table in the corner of the room. It was extravagantly set: French pastries, two kinds of quiches, baskets of fresh bread and egg entries with names which I will some day learn to pronounce. Needless to say, our plates were left spotless.

With our bellies full and eager ears, the gates of the mainstream Armenian community swung wide open in front of us. Armen, the gatekeeper, began: "Amidst political and origin differences, San Francisco Armenian community remains a well integrated community."

With his soothing yet direct tone and large hand gestures, one could not help but pay close attention to what he had to say. He appeared very comfortable in his own skin, sitting on the floor with his legs folded and his hand occasionally stroking his closely trimmed beard. "We've been able to overcome those differences in a positive way. For over 25-30 years we've had joint commemoration of the Genocide and recently we were able to come together and purchase the cross on Mt. Davidson."

Gohar, a mother of two appeared to be trapped in two worlds, playing with her sons Sevag and Hratch, while carefully paying attention to our conversation. Finally, there was a brief moment of silence, which she used to cross over to the other side. With one breath she announced, "I had to move to Glendale [a town close to Los Angeles populated by many Armenians] for a few months when I got married and when I was there I really missed the tight knit feeling of the Armenian community here. I grew up in LA, and San Francisco is more like Yerevan, we all know each other, plus we live closer to one another... you don't need to drive 45 minutes to go meet your friends and go out. Socially we are tight knit."

According to the group, Armenians living in San Francisco attend all types of Armenian events, without placing much significance on political or religious differences. "Our community is so much smaller that we can't ignore each other. We socialize with each other more. We are a part of each others' social circles."

Raffi, an outspoken entrepreneur with a characteristic Dashnak goatee and frameless glasses, seemed to be tearing at the seams waiting for his turn to speak. He used the first opening to ask the bigger question, "Then again what's wrong with divisions in the community? Why can't we have two churches? Why can't we have different organizations? I don't see a problem with that!"

Midway into the conversation, we realized that this group of internally integrated, fairly affluent professionals was representative of the majority of Armenians in this area. For us this was a bit surreal. In LA, we are surrounded by a variety of Armenians – from the posh hills of Glendale to the Adidas wearing, sunflower seed eating, aperos of Hollywood. It is not difficult to find Armenian workers who struggle in toxic sweat shops earning $5 an hour, with no lunch breaks, while their employers (who are often also Armenian) complain about welfare fraud. As a natural product of such diversity, the Armenian communities around Los Angeles struggle with issues such as poverty, violence and drugs.

San Francisco Armenians are generally not exposed to such problems. Ani, a former Angelino [Los Angeles resident] explained, "We have a high percentage of professionals so we can afford to focus our attention on different organizations and projects, the school, ANC, the Genocide Education Project, rather than on at-risk kids, immigrant issues, poverty, gangs and stuff like that."

Hearing this, I sensed the wheels in my brain slowly turning: This can't be, there has to be working class Armenians in San Francisco! I looked over to my photographer. We were on the same page. "Do you guys know any working class Armenians?" For a few seconds one could only hear the children playing. "There may be a koshkakar [shoemaker] somewhere ... … … but then the koshkakar owns his own shop … … and the whole plaza where he has his shop!" While laughter filled the room, I remained perplexed ... pleased?

Armenian families gathered for breakfast with Oorenk.

The group continued to talk about their experiences and slowly the conversation moved from work and money to a more controversial topic: Lesbian and Gay Armenians. Now we're talking! In Los Angeles one would have to be extremely brave to publicly utter those words in unison. According to the group, this is not the case in San Francisco. In fact, Armen insisted that we speak to Derick, one of the founders of Q-HYE, an organization for Queer Armenians.

Much of the time Dork sat quietly in the corner next to his equally quiet brother. His long legs comfortably stretched out in front of him, with both hands resting on a warm mug of tea. I pegged him as one of those people who would rather listen than speak, which only made me more curious. Eventually, Armen asked him to share a story which truly confirmed the tolerant nature of San Francisco.

As one of the coordinators of last year's April 24th event, Dork thought it would be interesting to include Chanticleer – a multicultural gay men's choir (that for some reason also sang Armenian songs), as part of the program. He recalled, "So I went to the committee, which was composed of Armenians mainly in their 50s. So I brought up this idea of having this gay choir sing for the April 24 event. Everyone except one thought it was a great idea and that guy opposed because he thought this might become a statement that we support gay marriage, so he only voiced a political issue out of it. So I said let's ask Der Hair from St. Gregory, and he said, 'it doesn't end with the Armenians!' Imagine this conversation in Glendale! Things are different here." Raffi pragmatically added, "Ya, if you hate gays, then you hate so many people around you, you won't last."

Sevana voiced another theory explaining the more tolerant attitude of Armenians in San Francisco. She reminded us of the cultural renaissance that their parents experienced during the 1960's in San Francisco. As she dynamically swept the dark strands of hair from her forehead, Sevana smiled and said, "After all Timothy Leary was my mother's professor." I guess that says it all.

Timothy Leary? Gay men's choir? Harmonious living? How many shades and flavors do we come in?

Before you assume anything, all members of the group identify themselves as Armenian. They participate in various Armenian organizations and attempt to maintain and strengthen the Armenian community in San Francisco. Most of them also focus their attention on Armenia, working to preserve its independence and development. Being Armenian isn't related to where you live, how you speak or the lifestyle you choose. It's how you feel inside, where you call home and what makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up (regardless of how much hair you have on the back of your neck in the first place). As Sevana put it, "for 400 years my family has not stepped foot in Armenia, I've never stepped foot in Armenia, but I'm Armenian! I've never tried to be one, it's never been an issue."

To me, this 'breakfast club' signified the fact that there is no one definition, no one cookie-cutter description of what it means to be Armenian. As an old and dispersed culture we have had the opportunity to live amongst a great mix of people. We have been influenced by their customs and ideas (as they have by ours), thereby creating our own great variety of unique flavors. Otherwise, our culture would not have become so rich and colorful. Whether you are a writer in San Francisco, a teacher in Pilmalak, or a Ghormei Sabzi cooking artist in Tehran, you are definitive to our family portrait. The simplistic notion of a "pure" center should have been left to die in the dusty journals of the 19th century discredited biologists, whose ideas have long been tools in the hands of those who divide to conquer.

This article excerpt may be downloaded in PDF format with all images and bilingual text (English and Armenian) from here. To get the full magazine containing this article as well as others, please visit Oorenk.

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