Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

See the Ararat and Stay

Diego Benning Wang,
New York, NY, United States

"I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, by the name of 'Ararat': it is the sense of belonging to the sacred mountain. Today, wherever my fate would take me, this sense will be dwelling in me and remaining with me for the eternity." - Osip Mandelstam

“Inchu es yekel Hayastan ashkhatanki? Aystegh pogh ch’ka!”
This is by far the most frustrating question I have ever been asked by people in Armenia.
The statement per se, however, is evidently flawed.  The convertible racing through the glittering streets of downtown Yerevan, the glamorously dressed women waltzing through the main pedestrian streets with equally dazzling lapdogs in their hands, the young people in upscale cafes dexterously flipping their fingers over the glossy touchscreens of their gadgets, and the magnificent palace-resembling condominiums lining up the highways leading to Ashtarak all defy the notion that Armenia is a country where the economic prospect is nowhere beyond gloomy. More importantly, illusions of the extravagant lifestyle of Armenia’s oligarchy that by all means contradicted the country’s fiscal statistics led to one of the most equivocal misperceptions I had of the country during my first visit.
Another less equivocal but more heart-aching perception I had of Armenian society was the ethnocentric intolerance, which I hereby prefer not elaborating on.
Despite the obvious incorrectness in all the above-stated perceptions, their corresponding phenomena do exist in today’s Armenia, and sometimes even prevail at the surface level. My first sojourn in the country, which lasted three months and was by and large confined to Yerevan, was far from enough for me to gain a comprehensive and unbiased insight into this newly independent country that is so strikingly full of contrasts—extreme affluence of the upper class vs. the sheer poverty of the rural poor, wholesale embrace of the culture of globalization by the young generation vs. staunch nationalism that often tramples upon the national esteem of neighboring peoples, Western-oriented political aspirations vs. profound nostalgia of a recent Soviet past, etc.
It would be extremely difficult to find a country where people are more eager to showcase their culture to the rest of the world than in Armenia. The true appreciation of the greatness of this nation, nonetheless, rests not simply in sightseeing or museum visits, because no monuments could recount the bittersweet stories of such a trouble-afflicted nation that has a glorious past and is struggling to regain its foothold on its ancient homeland in spite of the unimaginable traumas and upheavals of its recent past. The backbone of this nation is and has always been borne by its people whose spirit affects outsiders like me only through the stories they tell, both by words and through actions.
Unlike the vast majority of transient visitors who set foot on this ancient land for an array of purposes, I deeply feel attached to this country. And my attachment to Armenia all started with an arduous desire to behold the graciously snow-capped Ararat and my fellow Christians living underneath.  Due to the complexity of my backgrounds that most people in this long-isolated and ethnically homogenous society would find it difficult to comprehend, normal communications with locals were virtually implausible during my first visit of the country. Loneliness and alienation dominated my feelings alongside a never-fading fascination with the country’s culture.

Fortunately, thanks to the joint efforts of AVC and Birthright Armenia, I found a platform to truly integrate into this country that I now consider my second home. An intense working schedule that deprived me of at least three ours of sleep daily, challenging Armenian classes, daily rides on crowded and suffocating minivans, and regular visits to poverty-stricken towns and villages paradoxically kept me enthusiastic about my every second in Armenia.  My voluntary renunciation of the material wellbeing I had always taken for granted in America turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
During the two months of my second visit of Armenia, I met a myriad of brilliant people, some of which are friends worth cherishing for a lifetime. My homestay experience is particularly worth sharing:

My host family is a household of two—a widowed woman in her late 50s and her 18-year-old son (whose names will not be disclosed). The husband deceased because of an undetected brain tumor when the child was only 10. In order to avoid her son’s conscription into military service, the mother obtained a certificate of disability through her personal connections and thereby lost her job as a teacher of Russian language at a local public school. Unemployable because of the burdensome certificate, the family subsists largely on the mother’s meager subsidies that amounts to roughly 60 US dollars per month, help from her grown-up daughter who lives only two blocks away, and by hosting AVC and Birthright volunteers. The son is studying to be a masseur at a local vocational college on a partial scholarship (that compensates one-third of his tuitions) thanks to his skills in boxing and athletics.  Like many families on Baghramyan Street, the family is bilingual in Russian and Armenian. The mother, who attended a Russian school and finished college through a predominantly Russian-language curriculum, has a more proficient command in Russian than her native Armenian. Despite the economic hardships the family has been doomed into ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mother still considers herself a true member of Yerevan’s Soviet-educated and remarkably erudite elite. The vintage but grandiose furnishing of her apartment still bears testimony to a materially abundant life during Soviet times. Moreover, unlike most of her former neighbors who have left Armenia for good, owing to her unrelenting love for her country, she has not only remained in Armenia, but also made dedicated efforts in promoting Armenia’s culture by hosting volunteers. I was even amazed at myself for being able to sit at a kitchen table talking for several hours every single day with a woman almost ten years older than my parents.
And such is the story of one morally exemplary Armenian. It is this kind of inspiring story, which you can expect to encounter on a frequent basis once you immerse yourself into this country that not only motivates you to make your own contributions to this country but also sheds light upon a future of a remarkable nation that is destined to withstand all future challenges to its sovereignty.
I have no Armenian origins whatsoever.  But I would wholeheartedly encourage you to volunteer in Armenia with AVC. No matter whether or not your roots can be traced upon this land of antiquity, the experience you will have here will definitely be life-changing.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home