Not many people have heard the term “half-immigrant.” This is an identity embraced by Dr. Richard Hovannisian, a history professor at USC Dornslife College of Letters and Professor Emeritus of Armenian and Near Eastern History at UCLA. On 28 January this year, he engaged in a live streamed conversation with William Deverell, the Chair of USC Dornsife’s Department of History and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, at USC Institute of Armenian Studies. Through this conversation, deemed “The 'Half-Immigrant': In Between California's Generations,” he was able to discuss the pressures of balancing both halves of his identity.
Hovannisian’s father came to California in order to escape the 1915 Armenian Genocide at an age when most people in the US would be graduating high school. Throughout his life, he felt the cultural collide of being part of the “1.5 generation”, such as feeling the need to change his Armenian name in school to “Hovey” and, later in his adult years, realising the comparative American influence on his language and behaviour while teaching children in Beirut. He has created informal live-streamed conversations from USC about his experiences balancing both halves of his identity.
Dr. Hovannsian’s split experience is one shared globally by many. Aleksandra Rusowicz is a 20-year-old living on the other side of the country in Connecticut, but she also has been influenced by dual backgrounds. Her family left Poland in 2003 to come to the United States when she was in third grade.
Although she migrated to the country herself, Aleksandra feels she can identify with the idea of a “half immigrant”. “I usually consider myself a first generation immigrant. But it is often hard to remember my childhood in Poland - it is so distant at this point that is sometimes feels like a dream. So a “1.5 generation” immigrant may be more accurate when it comes to describing how I feel.“
“In my house, we keep up with many Polish traditions. We are basically obligated to wear slippers when inside, we drink tons of black tea, and eat many Polish foods that I rarely encounter outside of my home. Whenever my American friends come to my house, they often experience a sort of culture shock. “
Initially, Aleksandra also felt a culture clash between the worlds within her home and outside of it. “It was strange to realize that not all households are like mine as I was growing up. My school interactions were very different from those I experienced at home. The dichotomy was pretty unsettling for a while, but over time I learned how to act and speak in both settings. Now I tend to transition easily between the two.”
Hovannsian’s family, due to pressures and stereotypes of the “old world” at the time, did not talk with their son about the struggles in Armenia until his adult life; Aleksandra’s understanding of her family’s past was much more defined. ”There has never been a war on US soil but in Poland, my family has been pretty directly affected by war. My great-grandfather died in the war, and all of my grandparents participated in WWII in some way… Being raised by people who were largely brought up amongst violence and poverty has made me more appreciative for all that I have and also somewhat guilty for how easy my life is in comparison. “
Like Hovannsian, she also had difficulties with her name in school. “Throughout my life, almost everyone I encountered - even teachers - struggled with the pronunciation. Some barely even attempted and others took it upon themselves to give me a nickname. Most would call me Alex. But how would I spell that? Aleks? It seemed strange.”
She came to the culture-neutral nickname of “Ally” serendipitously one day when talking with friends. “But I do sometimes regret not using my full name. People rarely call me Aleksandra and it's a bit unfortunate because it is a beautiful name and it reminds me where I came from. “
Since she lives in America, Ally is able to keep up on all the US trends - whether they are pop cultural, political, or linguistic. In Poland, it is harder to stay up to date on current events going on when she visits. As a result, she feels it can be much easier to interact with friends and family in the US.
She explains that it is very strange having something so unique about you despite the different contexts you are in. “Here in the US, I'm the butt of many (good-humoured and hopefully affectionate) Polish jokes. When I'm in Poland, I am very much the ‘American girl’ and am sometimes treated as something to be studied. I spend much of my time in Poland answering questions like, ‘Does everyone there drive a minivan?’ and, ‘Have you ever met Britney Spears?’”
Despite these changes, the young psychology major feels it has been surprisingly easy to preserve her Polish identity, but mainly thanks to others. “Once people learn that I am Polish, they often bring up questions, news, and stories about Poland and Polish people to me.” But her family is still the main source of her Polish identity.
She is an example of how family plays a key role in shaping identity and culture, similar to Dr. Hovannisian’s sentiment. When questioned about passing on the Armenian culture to his children and grandchildren, he says it is better to transmit the messages “through osmosis rather than direct penetration.” In other words, he will not push his heritage on his family, but allow them to absorb the culture as they grow.
After all, identity is not what we let other people put onto us; it is the aspects of our lives that have formed us and that we make part of ourselves.
Although Ally is fully integrated into her American life and does not plan on moving back to Poland at any time, she says Poland will always have the sense of home for her. She wants to preserve the Polish identity that has helped shape her life while living in the country she grew up in.
“If I have children, I hope to teach them Polish and keep celebrating Polish holidays with them. I also think that my parents would be disappointed if I chose an American name for my children so I am hoping to find one that works in Polish as well as English.”