Moving to London finally helped me celebrate my Armenian heritage – Metro.co.uk

By , News and Lifestyle Editor at Jam Press
‘Does your dad beat you?’
It’s funny how memory works. I don’t remember who asked me this but I remember why – it wasn’t a question at all, but a loaded remark meant to hurt me.
The person who said it was implying that because my dad – a tall man with broad shoulders and a big moustache – is an immigrant from a culture with ties to the Middle East, he would somehow be violent. 
I was furious, not only on behalf of my own family but for the ethnic group that this type of xenophobic statement targets.
And to be perfectly clear: my father is a kind man who has never – and would never – lay a hand on me.
The incident happened some 20 years ago. At the time, I was one of very few people in my school with immigrant parents, growing up on Gotland, a tiny island in Sweden, where I was born.
Unfortunately, it would become the first of many similar racially-motivated experiences; from being called ‘blackhead’ and ‘blatte’ (a local phrase roughly translated as m*ngrel) to being targeted for my heritage, name and even my hair colour. 
I am Swedish-Armenian – and after 12 years in the UK, consider myself an honourary Brit – but I have battled these two sides of myself for decades.
My parents are Armenian and were brought up in Iran, but fled 38 years ago to escape a war. As refugees, they had nothing.
I will be eternally grateful for how my family were treated when they first arrived in Sweden in the late 80s; they were given housing, education, clothes and food. They were not turned away at the border or forced to travel by dinghy.
My parents worked hard to integrate themselves into society – and excelled, both socially and financially.
With two older siblings and many cousins – all of whom live in Sweden – I had a happy childhood at home.
However, I was frequently lonely at school, which was overwhelmingly filled with blonde, white children in a community that had never really experienced immigration.
I was often teased or outright bullied because I was ‘too loud’ and ‘looked different’ (it probably didn’t help that I had a unibrow and was a pretty chubby kid). One vivid memory is from when I was six years old and a classmate cut up the name tag on my locker.
Another features several people loudly protesting when I put myself forward to be St Lucia in the annual Christmas festival (it’s a pretty big deal in Sweden).
‘Lucia has to be blonde,’ they said, to which the teacher angrily informed them that the religious figure was apparently believed to have had dark hair. I didn’t really care which was accurate – the intention behind their objection was clear. 
Here’s the thing: Armenian culture is loud (both figuratively and literally). When my family has a heated but friendly debate, people often assume we’re fighting because we get so animated. We host huge BBQs and parties where we serve food until you burst – cooking and socialising in this way is a huge part of our culture. 
In contrast, although I don’t like to generalise, Swedish culture – while I love it – is more reserved. For me, this meant that I often had clashing experiences, like when I brought friends home and they were bemused by the ‘unusual dishes’ we served or by how outgoing my parents were.
Sometimes – I’m ashamed to admit it –  I felt embarrassed by our traditions and made myself ‘smaller’ to fit into other people’s expectations of how I should act. 
Although this feeling of otherness improved in my teenage years – mostly because we moved to Gothenburg, which is a much bigger city – I carried a form of internalised phobia against my own background. As the only one in my extended family to have been born in Sweden, I didn’t even know which ethnic group to identify as on passport forms. 
For many years, I put ‘white’, while in my 20s I put ‘mixed/other’, but it felt like neither group really wanted me to be part of their box.
There is actually an interesting parallel here. As a country, Armenia has a complicated history, having been considered European in the past but is now in the Caucasus region, both Asian and Middle Eastern, depending on who you ask.
No wonder I was confused, right?
Later, as a young adult fed up with people not being able to pronounce Almara (or not bothering to try) when I travelled to Australia, I decided to go by Al. In 2010, when I moved to the UK in search of a bigger adventure, I became aware of career opportunities that others in my family had lost out on in Sweden and introduced myself as Allie. 
Just one example includes a family member who was asked ‘can you write?’ in a job interview – despite graduating top of his class, with a degree in engineering. This same family member later changed his surname to something more ‘white-sounding’ to prevent future issues.
This prejudice isn’t just an assumption on my part; statistics show that ethnic-sounding names can impact job prospects negatively. My British accent is flawless and it’s not by accident.
When people in the UK asked where I was from (a question my sister and I both hate) I gave short answers. My subconscious feelings about my mixed background affected my social circle, work, dating life and identity.
In a way, I was trying to protect my family and myself.
When I was in my late 20s, something began to shift. I realised how much I missed my Armenian culture and it bothered me that I didn’t know that much about my family’s past.
A huge part of this realisation is due to London. It sounds like a cliché but the capital really is a melting pot of cultures and seeing other people who were unapologetically themselves pushed me towards change. I have also experienced far less racism in the UK (though I accept that this is partially because I am ‘white-passing’).
I am making a conscious decision to open up and to answer questions.
My mum and I are having conversations about her childhood and what it was like to live through a war. I’m also going to learn how to make my grandfather’s secret kebab recipe – which my dad has since perfected – and compile our family recipes for my nieces and nephews to enjoy.
On top of that, I have started researching Armenian history (did you know that the country supposedly had the world’s first winery?) and plan to visit sometime in the next few years.  
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Above all, I have accepted that I don’t need to choose between being Swedish and Armenian (and being an honourary Brit).
I don’t like labels. Instead, I am taking parts of each culture and creating my own identity.
By embracing every part of myself, I finally feel free. 
Mind you, I still don’t know which damn box to fill in on passport forms.
Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk
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