"I miss the talkative nature of the Lebanese...", an interview with Dr. Ara Sanjian (Part 1)

Interview with Dr. Ara Sanjian, Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

  • What kind of difficulties did you face after moving to the USA – socially, culturally, and academically?

I cannot say that I faced any serious academic difficulty. I actually began teaching the day after I arrived in the USA, and all of my new colleagues at the Social Science Department and the Armenian Research Center were very supportive. To get acculturated to the Michigan lifestyle both socially and culturally was predictably more challenging, and I still cannot say that this process has come to its end. I am gradually becoming more familiar with the local customs, but it will probably take a few more years until I’ll start considering Dearborn as my primary home.

  • What is one aspect that you miss most not having in the USA?

The talkative nature of the Lebanese! The fact that your business is also everybody’s business! I know that it sometimes irritates people in Lebanon (and I am certainly no exception in this regard), but it is also an indicator that the people around you care about you. When I used to return home from work in Lebanon, I usually felt that I’ve had enough discussions with others that day, from matters related to work to the latest developments in Lebanese politics. In Michigan, my work is more office-oriented, with much less person-to-person contact; people email to one another from the office next door!

  • You have taught students at Haigazian University, Lebanon for many years. In what ways does the student body in Dearborn differ from the one in Lebanon?

The University of Michigan-Dearborn is, like Haigazian, largely an undergraduate college, with relatively few master’s degree programs. Dearborn’s full-time student body, however, is more than ten times larger than Haigazian’s. Most of the students attending the courses I teach are majoring in History, Education or International Studies; they are required to take non-Western history courses. A large number of the students work full-time. Hence, many of the courses I have taught so far were scheduled after 6 pm in the evening. The average age of the students is noticeably higher than that at Haigazian, because many people in the USA return to university to further their education after establishing a working career and setting up their own families. The level of their knowledge of the English language is understandably higher, but very few of them can read in any other language. For the Armenian history courses, the novelty for me is that the majority in the classroom is not of Armenian origin and these students have almost no prior knowledge about Armenia or the Armenian people. Hence, I have adopted a comparative approach, emphasizing those aspects of Armenian history and culture, which can be of interest, I think, to non-Armenians.

  • Having been living in the USA for well over a year now, how would you define the present situation of the Armenian community living in the country? What are some of the major problems that this community faces today?

The United States is a very large country, and Armenians live in different parts of that country. The history and composition of the Armenian communities, say, in New York and New Jersey, Boston, Detroit, Fresno and Los Angeles are very different from one another. These communities have emerged at different times, and the Armenians who now low live in each of these locations have migrated to the United States at different times. What they have in common is that in all of these communities serious efforts are being made to preserve the Armenian identity among the younger generations as much as possible, and there are nationwide church, political and philanthropic organizations which try to link these communities together.

  • Is it true that Armenians living in the USA are losing their Armenian identity and becoming fully assimilated in the American community?

Assimilation is a universal norm; minorities tend to dissolve among the majority that they live in. The Armenian experience across the world has not been an exception. Perhaps the only difference among the various Armenian communities in various parts of the world has been the pace of assimilation. In the United States, Armenians (and other ethnic immigrant communities) tend to lose the use of their mother language more quickly than the Armenians living in the Middle Eastern countries. However, within the American context, loss of the mother language should not necessarily be equated with total assimilation. Many English-speaking Armenians of the second-, third- and even the fourth-generation remain active in Armenian community affairs. There are a number of good English-language Armenian periodicals in the United States, which make it possible for English-speakers to follow ‘Armenian’ news very closely.

  • America being the melting pot of cultures, do you see such assimilation as a threat to the continual existence of Armenians in the States?

Armenians in the United States will eventually assimilate like all Armenians living outside the Armenian homeland. I will not try to predict how long that assimilation process will take and what phases it will pass through. For the time being, however, Armenians living in the homeland and in the other Diasporan communities should try to make the best to maintain close contact with the Armenians of the United States, try to help the latter whenever they need assistance and also try to benefit from the relative wealth and expertise of the Armenians in the United States for the benefit and progress of the Armenians in other parts of the world, especially in the homeland.

  • What privileges do American people have that is not available to the Lebanese in general?

America has a much higher standard of living than Lebanon, and adjusting to the American lifestyle and expectations has been one of the main challenges I have faced during my ‘transition period’ in the USA. In higher education, this higher standard of living is evident first and foremost in the ease with which the students and instructors have access to resources dependent on modern technology, including the use of ipods, databases, and very efficient inter-library exchange networks extending across the country and even beyond.

  • Do you think we are now much closer than we ever were to persuade the American politicians to recognize the Armenian calamities of 1915 as genocide?

I must admit that I am not following these developments very closely, so my opinion should be given as much weight as somebody’s who follows the Armenian media regularly and not more. It is apparent that years of Armenian lobbying and publishing have made the American public and its political class more aware of the Armenian Genocide than ever. The only effective opposition to the adoption of the resolution now before the US Congress is the government – both the White House and the State Department – who still prefer not to antagonize their ally, the Turkish government. They will most probably try something again (like President Clinton in 2000) to prevent the Congress from actually discussing and voting on the resolution, because – if voted upon – it is very likely that it will pass. It all depends if the leadership of the House of Representatives will listen to the advice from the White House. On the last occasion, in 2000, this was the means followed to foil the resolution.

To be continued (part 2)...

Interview conducted by M. Chilingirian