Naira was volunteering in Armenia for the same reason I was: to better understand the devastation of the Armenian Genocide, during which the Ottoman Turks massacred an estimated million and a half lives, including all eight of my great-grandparents. Almost a century later, we both felt the pull to return to our homeland. I could easily envision the home we could create, with kids running around, holding on to her apron strings. But I felt torn, and guilty.
My conundrum began all the way back in second grade at a day school for my ethnic community. Every morning students recited the Pledge of Allegiance with an additional pledge. “Above all else I will love my fatherland,” we chanted in Armenian. My father would admonish me: “You must marry your own kind, have children and teach them your mother tongue.” He’d said there weren’t many of us left. The fate of our race lay in the hands of my classmates and me. A good boy, I’d wanted to make him proud. Surely I could wed one of the pretty schoolgirls and have my own family like he did.
But later, as a 20-year-old in college, I was well aware of my attraction to men, even though I hated feeling that way. Being with another guy sounded like cheating on my destiny. I felt an obligation to procreate with an Armenian-American woman and save my 3,000-year-old culture from the brink of extinction. I willed myself to feel attracted to the opposite sex, wondering if I could be bisexual. Girls gravitated to my wavy hair and easy smile, and on the last day of my junior year, I approached an Armenian-American classmate and asked her to lunch. She grinned and said yes. And I so wanted to fall for her—her cute freckles gave me hope. But when we sat together in a café, I fidgeted. I didn’t bring up my anxiety about the pressure to marry within our community. Our conversation fell flat, and neither of us could revive it. After we said good-bye, I visited the student counseling center hoping a therapist might resolve my conflict, but she couldn’t. She did, however, help me embrace the feeling of freedom I eventually experienced dancing with another guy.
Five years later I introduced myself to Peter after I saw him standing across a dance floor with his brown eyes and combed-back hair like David Beckham. I liked his sappy taste in music, and wanted to get closer. We got to know each other and started dating. I saw him as a “WASC”: White Anglo Saxon Catholic. But after three months I told him we couldn’t be together. Instead of giving him the real reason: “You’re not Armenian and, besides, we’ll never produce offspring,” all I offered him was: “We’re too different. It’ll never work.”
“OK, if that’s how you feel,” he said.
But three days later he let me know he was miserable, confessing, “I’ve been listening non-stop to ‘Un-Break My Heart.’” I’d felt empty without him, too, and promised to try again.
I still wondered, though, if a gorgeous, charismatic woman would sway me from Peter. During that time I spent in Armenia, Naira perfectly fit the description, with her brunette tresses and silly sense of humor. We did everything as a pair. One evening we were enjoying coffee and watermelon with village elders. A grandma pointed to me and asked, “Are you married?
“Oh, you’re too old not to be wed. Take one of our daughters to America,” she said, and as if on cue, three teenage girls appeared, standing on display in a row. The elderly woman gauged my interest: “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yes,” I said. And they were—but also far too young. Part of me wished I were the type who could take a girl home to please my parents. Our community would applaud sticking to my roots and furthering our line, even with an adolescent girl. Part of me felt sick. Another part of me knew I’d never have a wife. I needed to be with the one person I truly loved, even if he was a man with no Indo-European lineage. I realized I might not biologically conceive an Armenian baby, but I did want a child.
Back home, I saw postcards I’d sent Peter neatly arranged on his desk. I told him about the friend I made in Naira. As Peter and I got more serious about each other, our late-night talks became discussions weighing the pros and cons of surrogacy versus adoption. Eventually we chose the latter and the birth of our biracial daughter cemented our bond.
With darker skin and curly black hair, she didn’t look like her adoptive dads. We vowed never to ignore her biological heritage. My ancestors had been slaughtered for their ethnicity, and I didn’t want her to feel the pain I’d felt shunning a part of myself.
But that didn’t mean refusing her my ethnic heritage. In her bedroom we laid down a colorful mat of the Armenian alphabet. We baptized her in a Christian Apostolic church. Her first foods included mashed red lentils with pilav—the meat and potatoes of Armenian home-cooking.
We felt like a family, yet wanted more. When marriage became possible for Peter and me, we threw ourselves a wedding. Naira was there—with her boyfriend. At the reception Peter and I hooked pinkies above our heads, and we all hopped in a traditional circular dance.
Driving my dad home that night, I felt giddy with my husband and our young daughter. I put on a playlist of Armenian children’s songs, and sang along to my favorite tune as a schoolboy. Though the mountains are wide, and the oceans divide… When the familiar chorus repeated, my dad and little girl joined in, and we crooned together as one.