In college, just as I was starting to think of myself as a writer—also known as my “insufferable” phase—I felt a vague anthropological obligation to interview the elderly people on my mother’s side of the family. I figured I only had a couple of years, tops, before they all died. My uncle’s parents, for instance, had been born just after the genocide in 1915 and, though they’d been living in California for most of my life, couldn’t speak a word of english. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted from the interviews, but I assumed they’d grant me access to harrowing stories of Evil, Survival, Redemption, and other capitalized morsels that whet the appetites of the insufferable. Besides: I didn’t feel the need to explain—or understand—my motives. As far as I was concerned, my only responsibilities were to the twin gods of History and Posterity. So I logged on to Tele-BEARS and—as nobly as possible on a service named like a cartoon about sentient fruit snacks—enrolled in Introductory Armenian.
Once the righteousness faded, I was left with a searing anxiety and a profound sense of regret. Somehow—maybe because I’d seen so many ads for language-learning software you could use alone in your underwear—what I’d forgotten about classes was that you had to take them with other people. This worried me because unlike the Spanish I’d taken in high school, or the French David Sedaris takes in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Armenian was a language only others Armenians learned. I was a halfie, but I had a few strikes against me: I didn’t know more than a handful of Armenian words, I looked white, and I was going into the whole thing the way a beginning writer would, to learn something more than just the language—you know: insufferably.
The anxiety led to a kind of bitterness against my mom, who could have passed the language on, I thought, and saved me all this trouble. But the bitterness quickly passed, because the truth was I had no one to blame but myself.
My mom immigrated from Armenia in the 70s, but she retained a unique take on english cliches. “Simple as that” was dented into “Simple is like that,” and “Am I right or am I right?” into “Did I say it good or did I say it good?” She did not say it good, my younger self thought. She did not say it good at all.
Who did say it good—said everything well, I thought—was my father. Unlike Mom, he was an American by birth, and when he spoke—in an english that wasn’t just his first language, but his only language—his speech seemed graced with a kind of purity, a word you can’t use without winking unless you’re a kid or an idiot. When he spoke, I listened differently. I tended to listen to my mom just enough to parse out the information she was giving me. But when my dad spoke, I listened the way a writer reads, paying close attention to the choices that, deployed with such incredible confidence, didn’t appear to be choices at all. That I looked more like him than I did my mom seemed less important to me than that I sounded more like him. I decided to learn as little Armenian as possible.
Now I was enrolled in Armenian 1A, which met in a classroom the size of a kitchen, by far the smallest I’d seen on campus. Still, because there were only ten of us, the room felt as endless as Learning itself. Or maybe it only felt that way to me, since I took a seat at the back corner, as far as possible from the central cluster of students, who, without exception, were dark-haired and olive-skinned and already—through the Armenian Student Association—close friends.
They were raucous, too, reconnecting after the summer the same way my cousins talked—teasing and feigning offense and laughing all in single-breath bursts of Armenglish. The teacher hadn’t arrived yet, and I was starting to feel as conspicuous as a silent white guy in the corner of a loud classroom. Finally one of the group, a stubbly upperclassman with political stickers on his laptop, invited me to sit closer.
“Didn’t expect to see a white person,” he said, cheerfully. He seemed genuinely surprised, and I decided to take his honesty as a sign of kindness.
“Well,” I said, “I’m actually Armenian, too. Other than my dad, I don’t know my white side at all. My only cultural context for family, really, is Armenian. My mom immigrated from—”
“In this country,” he interrupted, somehow maintaining a tone of generosity, “you are what you look like.”
Before we could exchange further pleasantries, the professor entered. She was a small, thin woman with grey shoulder-length hair swept away from her face. She was wearing multiple sweaters—a cardigan over a pullover—and I found myself sitting straighter in my chair. I sucked in my gut and lifted my chin. If I’d had another sweater nearby, I would have thrown it on in solidarity.
From Tele-BEARS I knew that my professor was Santoukht Mikaelian, a name approximately 16% of which I could pronounce with confidence. The rigidity I expected from her two sweaters was softened when she asked to be called only by her first name, a gift that cut my potential for mistakes in half. Still, the trickiest part—the kh, a deep throaty growl my father and I could only make when choking on potatoes—landed in the one name she preferred.
Santoukht started writing on the chalkboard. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Armenian alphabet lately. Growing up I’d seen some of the letters on churches and Bibles and wedding announcements, but hadn’t paid them much attention. They were like the nonsense lettering on sci-fi control panels—nice touches intended more for the audience than the pilots. But now I took a closer look. About twice a month I heard somebody on my mom’s side of the family mention that Armenians were an ancient people, but it took a woman in two sweaters squeaking chalk against a board in an outdated and undersized classroom for me to see it, the history. Each loop and bar shined holy and primeval as ankhs.
I could see too, by the columns Santoukht had made, that each word signified a category. Saying something in Armenian, Santoukht handed the chalk to the stubbly political guy. He went to the chalkboard, introduced himself, and then wrote under the first category what I assumed was the unspeakable name of God. Then he passed the chalk to the next person, who introduced herself before adding whatever deity she chose to add to the list, and so on. Some of the students struggled slightly with the Armenian letters—I realized that although they were fluent, reading and writing were their weak points and raison d’être for their place in the Introductory level—but each person managed to get something resembling antiquity down under that first category.
Finally, it was my turn. Chalk in hand, I introduced myself to the class. Santoukht repeated my name calmly, and I turned to face the board. “Chris,” Santoukht said a third time, and I said, “Yes. Chris.” Just as I was beginning to fear I’d walked onto a production of Beckett, one of the students helpfully called out, “You can write it in english,” which is when I figured out the first category was Name.
“C H R I S,” I wrote stupidly, and turned to see a group of my peers cheering me on with enthusiastic nods. Then Santoukht took the chalk and wrote, next to my handwriting, “Քրիս.” I stood back and inspected her work. While the rest of the class filled out the other categories—favorite color, favorite food, field of study—I stared at my own name in a language I couldn’t read. Քրիս.
Years earlier, in a gift shop at Disneyland, I’d begged my mom for a keychain. Looming at the center of the shop was an unscalable rack of keychains bearing famous characters and common names. On the boys’ side, I reached for and sifted through the Johns and Henrys and Williams, and just as I was beginning to lose hope, I found it, my Chris. My mom refused to buy it on the grounds that my sister’s name could not be found. I knew I had zero use for the keychain—I was five, and lockless—but I anguished after it. My name existed outside of me, and it seemed vital that I own it.
Now I felt, again, a variety of that longing. Քրիս. Maybe these symbols were just as silly and useless as the keychain, but they seemed to mean something else, too. Buried behind the Johns and Henrys and Williams—and even behind the Chris—these symbols had been there all along, and I was only now seeing that they were beautiful and that they meant me.
Santoukht said there were four components to mastering any language: understanding, speaking, reading, and writing. Since I was the only person in class who needed help with the first two, our meetings quickly became an exercise in accommodation. While most of the other students worked together at the chalkboard on syntax, Santoukht would sit beside me to work on my comprehension. At first she’d ask questions in Armenian that I could respond to with proper nouns in english: Where are you from? What is your father’s name? Whenever I understood the question and responded correctly, she grabbed the lapels of her outer sweater like clutching at her heart, and said, “Bravo!”
In her mind, our dynamic must have been that of a mother and her precocious toddler. But my experience was different. Because I’d grown up my whole life hearing—if not listening to—Armenian, Santoukht’s words didn’t sound alien the way the writing looked. The words sounded—I almost said familial—familiar. Each spoken word seemed to echo from a previous life I’d lived. I felt less like a toddler and more like a victim of blunt trauma to the head, emerging from a decades-long coma, trying to remember the meanings of words I knew I knew.
The other students treated me kindly to what would have been a condescending degree had I not wanted or needed their kindness. At the end of every meeting, they’d each come by to congratulate me in a careful english on the progress they assumed I was making. Sometimes they’d offer extracurricular tutoring, or invite me to ASA events and parties. I’d already known that Armenians were notoriously generous and kind people, but now I was starting to see that the source of their goodness was, in some cases, an interminable capacity for pity.
And then, one day, I saw it—a minor clench of the jaw of my stubbly political classmate. Santoukht had just abandoned their conversation on the struggles of post-Soviet democracy (I assumed) to ask me the title of my favorite book. Just the slightest hitch in his face, followed by a barely perceptible apologetic shrug in the shoulders of Santoukht’s sweaters, and I knew then that my need for special instruction was depriving the rest of the class.
So I wasn’t shocked when, the next time we met, I saw a new woman seated at the back of the classroom. She was a PhD candidate, and she was here to work with me one-on-one. “Linguistics?” I said. “I didn’t know you could get a doctorate in pasta.” She didn’t laugh. Instead, she pulled an enormous hardcover book from her bag and dropped it on the desk between us.
“Santoukht tells me you’d like to become a writer,” she said.
“That is I hope,” I said, in Armenian.
“Then let’s focus on stories.”
The enormous book was an illustrated collection of Armenian folktales. It felt like a step backward— reading aloud, letter by letter, about princesses and millers and lions while the other students and Santoukht discussed international responses to genocide (I assumed). But the PhD and I read together anyway, and I took the book home with me, and I started to feel a kind of joy when, after focusing so intensely on the individual parts, the logic of a story became clear. Suddenly I could identify a story’s beginning, middle, and end by more than just their placement between the pages. I could sense the shifts. And I could sense a shift in my own life, too. I was entering a new, slightly less insufferable phase, and the overlap of the shift in language and the shift in life felt like magic.
For my final project, I wrote and illustrated an allegorical children’s story of my own. The story was intended for four-year-olds, the level at which I could write. My main character was an eagle who, raised by ducks, only knows how to quack. One day, one of the ducks says, “In this lake, you are what you look like.” And the eagle goes off to find his family and to learn how to sound like an eagle.
It was a simple story with amateurish illustrations in crayon, but the stapled pages together assembled into a kind of triumph. Santoukht and the PhD candidate and my fellow students seemed impressed, but that’s not what I mean. What do I mean? I mean to say that I had enrolled in the class to take something away, and here instead I had created something. Almost meaningless, yes, but something. And when I sent the story home, and when my mother loved it and shared it with my aunts and uncles and even their parents, who didn’t speak a word of english, we were engaged in the business of family.
I still haven’t learned enough to have a meaningful conversation in Armenian. But recently, when my uncle’s mother died, I didn’t think of all the stories she took with her to the grave, all the stories my limited vocabulary prevented me from inheriting. I only felt a deep sadness for my uncle, her son, and his daughters, my cousins, all of whom knew and loved her more devotedly than I could, and sorry that she would no longer be at the house when I visited, telling my mom in Armenian, “He’s such a good boy. He’s always been such a good boy.”
Anyway, like I said, it’s a simple story. In the end, the eagle goes back to the ducks. He sounds the same, but he’s not.
Chris McCormick is the author of Desert Boys.