We have asked ourselves many times in our work and lives, “What does it mean to be American?” We drove across the country, lived in different cities, talked to many people, and when we looked in the mirror, we finally recognized the faces we were looking for. We are first generation Americans. We are the daughters of immigrants.
The beauty of this country is in the American dream. The American dream is a story of union. It is the eternally optimistic idea that no matter who you are or where you came from, this land, this place, will give your life and story the “happily ever after” that it deserves. Our identities are the products of the American mindset and the cultures that our parents passed down to us, through blood and tradition. Those traditions helped cultivate and inform not only our individual hopes and dreams, but also the greater goals of the nation.
“1stGen” is a photo series that concentrates on first generation Americans. These daughters of immigrants provide us with an inside look into our collective identity by recognizing the struggles and stories of brave immigrants, seeking a better life. As we take in the images of these women, we are celebrating the beauty of America and the ancestry emanating from each face. Supplementing the images are their stories, and their parents’ stories. Each person is an essential element, as we seek to understand their lives, their parents’ lives, and the value of our immigrant nation.
Intro: Name, age, place of birth?
Arpine Khachikyan. 25. Born in Los Angeles, CA.
Where are your parents from, and why did they come to America?
My parents left Armenia when the Soviet Union was starting to break down. Since everything was run by the USSR, the countries under Soviet rule had to start from zero after the collapse. Getting basic human needs was practically impossible. I’ve heard so many stories from different Armenian families about how people were starving after the collapse. Many families, like my own relatives, had to burn their own belongings just to have fire to keep warm. My family immigrated to America to survive, to find stability and better prospects for their children.
How did their choice to come here alter your life?
If my parents had not left Armenia, I would probably be leading an entirely different life. Armenia’s middle class is growing, and the country has its small wealthy elite, but a large portion of the population remains poor. Getting an education is not an option for many people. As a woman, access to education and employment would be even more difficult to obtain.
Social pressures would also have their own influence. Armenian culture is very communal, traditional, family oriented and patriarchal. Unfortunately, the people still maintain very conventional notions of what’s socially acceptable for men and women. There has been development, but there is much room for improvement. If my family were to have remained in Armenia, as a 25-year-old woman, chances are I would have been married with children, and I probably wouldn’t be in law school.
What have your parents contributed to the United States?
The biggest contributions my parents have made to the U.S. have been their children and sharing our culture. My sister Ani, my eldest sibling, worked full time to put herself through college. She graduated with a degree in finance and now works in banking. My brother Arman and I were fortunate enough to receive financial aid to attend college. I think children of immigrants and first generation born children often have this burning drive to become successful. We want to make our parents’ sacrifices worth it, and pay them back for their struggles. This often leads to so many different contributions to society, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, business etc. Sharing culture and traditions itself enriches society and individuals.
What do you currently do and what are you dreams for the future?
I just finished my first year of law school and I’ve been working at a private practice for three years. When I was younger, being a lawyer was the farthest thing from my dream job. I imagined being an attorney was tedious, soul-sucking torture. I’m sure there are attorneys who feel that way, but I think it depends on what your goals are. In reality, if you’re trying to be Harvey Specter you’re probably going to want to kill yourself. For me, I love the challenge and giving people guidance.
For the future, I just want stability, comfort and success for me and my family.
What does it mean to be American?
Agency and liberalism are what I personally directly associate with being American.
Having the essential building blocks, the ability to take control and bring your dreams into fruition, I think, is part of being an American.
Every group of people has its origin story that symbolizes its identity. I think the early American origin stories certainly represent the ideals of what it means to be an American. We all know the tales. Essentially, America was established by social rejects. People came to this country to believe in whatever and live however they saw fit. With the help of those native to this land they managed to survive and break away from old rules the people had outgrown. Of course reality isn’t such a pretty picture, but the story serves as a reminder of what it means to be an American. It’s important to remember to always return to where we started.
What does your culture mean to you? What has it taught you?
My culture is the core of my identity. Being a part of an ancient culture, rich with traditions and history is a source of pride for me and I feel fortunate to have been born into such a culture.
I was the first person in my family to be born in the U.S., but I didn’t learn English until I started kindergarten. I grew up in a neighborhood that’s notoriously predominantly Armenian. Half of my relatives lived only blocks away from me. My Armenianness serves as both an anchor to me and another lens through which I see the world.
I think most first generation born Americans identify with feeling like a crossbreed, or what Gloria E. Anzaldúa calls, “la mezcla”: being a hybrid, not fully a member of your culture cause you’re “white washed,” but also not fully American cause you haven’t completely become Americanized. There’s always a struggle to satisfy conflicting expectations.
But being a hybrid provides a great vantage point for constructive criticism and development. I’m often critical about aspects of both Armenian and American culture. Having that extra lens is a large part of what allows me to be so critical of what’s going on around me, but it’s a constructive criticism. Our modern first-world American society has all but forgotten the essence of what it is to be human: our connection to each other, being present in the world with each other and conscious of our human experience. I think cultural traditions have a way of capturing and preserving this essence. Today everything is about “me, me, me,” “I want this,” “I need more money,” etc. For me, my Armenianness keeps me grounded in what’s real and what’s important.
Why are you the face of America?
America, from the beginning has been a hybrid, a clash between the native and the new coming colonials, between the colonials and the “old world.” This clashing continues not only between American society at large and immigrants/first generation born children, but also within them. We each are an individualized embodiment of the essence of America.
Do you have a story to share about your first generation identity?
I didn’t really realize how Armenian I was until college orientation. I had registered to live on campus my freshmen year of college, looking forward to immersing myself in the quintessential college experience familiar to so many Americans. Culture shock was the last thing I was expecting to experience. Like most universities, my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University (Go Lions!), holds a three day orientation full of bonding activities, chaperoned parties, and information sessions for its freshmen. I was the embodiment of a socially awkward fish out of water. I felt like everyone saw me as “the ethnic girl.” I saw myself as an outsider, different from everyone. The way people interacted with each other and behaved was far from what I was used to in my sheltered Armenian upbringing. I completely freaked out, decided against dorming and ended up commuting all four years. I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. I think a big part of it was fear that if I moved away from home I’d lose my Armenianness and become too Americanized. Once I became comfortable in my own skin, the fear and discomfort faded. Now I’m the one badgering my friends to come over, so I can feed them Armenian food and introduce them to my family.