History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia

I have a confession to make: I’m actually an Irishman. It’s true: I’m all Irish, all the time, all the way down, and abundantly so. I am super Irish, even excessively Irish: Bono on a blarney stone chanting Flann O’Brien into a fogbank isn’t as Irish as I am, no; I’m more Irish than a pooka in a pocket of Father Ted reading the Book of Kells in Kilkenny. How Irish am I? I’m so Irish, I’ve been living off of potatoes for months. I’m so Irish, I’ve haven’t set foot on the soil of Ireland in decades—you know, like Samuel Beckett, or James Joyce. Who were, you know, Irish.

In fact, I’ve never even set foot on Irish soil. I’m not a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. My passport isn’t from either of those places. I only know a handful of Gaelic words. I can’t name any provinces or subdivisions of the Emerald Isle. I haven’t had a Guinness in two years. I have tried peaty whisky spelled without an “e,” and enjoyed it greatly. I couldn’t name a single Irish footballer. I don’t know who the president of the Republic of Ireland is—if pressed, I would probably say Colum McCann or The Edge. And to the eternal disappointment of everybody, I don’t even have a bit of a brogue. A case might be made, however flimsy, that I am in fact not Irish at all. But here in my village, I’m Irish everywhere it counts: my bloodline. So in my village, at least, I am Clayton Davis, the Irishman from America.

This comes up from time to time. Rural Armenians don’t get a lot of chances to talk to foreigners, and they are endlessly curious about everything. What is my family like? What do I do at the school? What do I do at home? What do Americans know about Armenia? How long did I study Armenian? Do I give private lessons? Is English hard? Am I sure I don’t give private lessons? Do I have Armenian friends in America? Where am I from? I get that last question a lot, and I always answer it in the same way: “I’m an American from the state of Oregon. It’s north of California.” (Advice: always explain U.S. geography in terms of California. It’s the only state everybody knows.) Oregon-north-of-California has always been my answer to where I’m from, and I expect it’ll stay that way for the rest of my service.

But when I talk about where I’m from, every so often—sometimes very often, it seems—people lean in and say “Sure, of course. But where are you really from?” At this point, I play dumb. “I’m an American from the state of Oregon. It’s north of California.” They shake their heads. “My city is Portland, famous for its beer,” I offer, but that’s not what they mean. I’m stalling and I know it, and not because I’m afraid they know my dark secret, which is that I was actually born in Washington, but because I like to see how they come out and say what they really mean. There are a few ways they can say it, but it always comes down to the same idea. Maybe the best—most direct—phrasing of it I’ve heard was from a clerk in a city: “Yes, but America’s not a real nation, right? What’s your nationality?” It’s at this point that I cave in and confess to being Irish.

This is the best answer I can give. And it has the benefit of being mostly true: while my parents are hardly leprechauns, my father’s side is dependably descended from ol’ Eire several generations back in every direction, and my mother’s side is fairly Irish and staunchly Gaelic (I’ve always hoped it might be Manx or Cornish, but I think it’s more of a mainline Welsh/Scottish connection). Irish Catholicism runs in both sides of my family (by similar logic, this also makes me the village Catholic). I look the part, too, with green-eyes, dark blonde hair that goes full-hobbit if I avoid barbers, and skin that naturally scorches under sunlight. My surname is Davis, that Irish-Welsh classic, which shows up on both sides of the family (no relation). My family even got one of those DNA heritage kits last year, which said that I’m about 52% Irish with another 20% or so of Scandinavian descent—and that’s probably Irish, too, the entire British Isles being a primary target for raiding & colonizing Norsemen up until a few centuries of hygge and Lutheranism straightened them out into productive social democrats. Insofar as I am anything, I suppose it’s Irish, although I emphasize the -ish. I feel some affinity for the island, have studied its history and culture a little bit, can bark out a couple of Gaelic words for fun, and plan on visiting someday. All well and good. But does it make sense to call me Irish? Can’t I just be an American in Armenia?

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Pictured: an “Irishman” on Lake Sevan. August 2017. Author’s camera.

The answer is that yes, most of the time in most situations, I absolutely can! People in my village are hardly dashing to the archives to figure out which ship saved which of my ancestors from potato blight. To many people at site, most of the time, my heritage is just another weird factoid about me, like my weird first name or the make of my car. Many people have never brought it up at all. And many of my younger students still think I’m English because I speak English. Try as you might, it’s very hard to make generalizations about the beliefs of 3 million Armenians, or even 1,000 Armenians in my village, or even two Armenians in a room. (In my experience, one room with two Armenians usually has three opinions.) Plenty of Armenians are unfazed by the distinction between heritage and citizenship—after all, Armenia has one of the world’s most far-flung diasporas, living and thriving on every continent. There’s a large Armenian population in the United States, and many of them keep close ties with the Republic of Armenia. So it’s not like people are mistaking me for a real Irishman.

And yet. Sometimes I get questions about Irish culture and history, or questions about independence from the United Kingdom, or even the Troubles. I know very little about any of these things. I don’t know exactly why I get these questions, but I have some theories: one is that ancestry is pretty important in Armenian culture, so it takes on an elevated importance here; another is the mistaken assumption that all American immigrant communities are as (relatively) close-knit as the most recent waves of Armenian Americans are. Whatever it is, it’s often assumed that I spend more time thinking about Ireland and the Irish people than I actually do. And to be fair, there is an Irish diaspora of sorts, but I’m not part of it. I’m not engaged in Irish politics or any heritage organizations. I don’t have living social or family ties to any part of the island. I don’t have dual citizenship. No state programs are clamoring to repatriate me to my ancestral lands. And yet, sometimes it feels like I’m the village Irishman, and it feels like I’m wearing a button that says Ask Me Something, I’m Irish! As an American, this bothers me.

I should get something out of the way: most Volunteers in Armenia, maybe even all of them, get this “Where are you really from?” question at least once. But that doesn’t mean we all get this same question for the same reason. Some people, like me, answer it and get a pat on the back on an approving comment, and then we move on. But some Volunteers get this question a lot more persistently, and with much more urgency. Where are you really from? Where’s your real home? What’s your real language? This happens. I don’t have to tell you which Volunteers have to put up with these questions. These Volunteers don’t look like me, and their ancestors don’t come from Ireland, or Germany, or England: they must not be real Americans, then, not really. It is disheartening, as an American abroad, to find that our worst ideas have preceded us. Again, these aren’t universal values here, but you can find them, and it’s upsetting. So for me, “Where are you really from?” is a cute distraction; nobody will use my answer to cast aspersions on my ability to teach English. Nobody will ask me how I got my passport. Nobody will ask me if I know that joke about the Irishman and the Eskimo, because there aren’t any jokes like that for me to sit through. I don’t want to linger on this point because it’s not a conversation I should be leading, but it’s only fair to admit that, where some Volunteers are under constant pressure to prove themselves, my “Where are you really from?” stories net me a cute St. Patrick’s Day post. The stakes are so much lower in my case, but they are the only ones I have any right to address, so that’s what I have to work with.

One of our goals as Peace Corps Volunteers—the second one, out of three—is to share American culture with people in our host country. The thing about the second goal is that it’s whatever you want it to be. Second Goal can be relatively minor things, like using an English Club session to talk about the Fourth of July and the symbolism of the American flag. Or you can derail an 11th grade reading assignment on Abraham Lincoln to complain that the short biography we’re translating reduces the Civil War to a single line, and completely neglects to mention his murder. You could do this for that same textbook’s biography on Martin Luther King, Jr., which makes the same mistakes. You could spend your whole service correcting errors and misconceptions about the United States that creep into Armenian textbooks. You could spend your whole service working with just American culture. You could spend your whole life doing it, and you wouldn’t even begin to exhaust the products, personalities, and ideas of American civilization. I probably will spend my whole life doing it, because I defer to nobody in my fascination for my homeland. Its influence on me is endless, and inexhaustible.

And this is what bothers me about being mistaken for genuinely Irish, when it happens: my Irishness is a genetic accident. It doesn’t explain very much about me at all, not like my Americanness does. These Irish clothes don’t fit me very well. Again, this is a relatively minor complaint. But it points to something that matters. I’ve always thought of the United States as a place where many have died, and arguably continue to die, to create a society where nobody is defined, confined, or rewarded for their ancestry or place of birth.The brutal fact of how life really is for so many Americans can distract us from how important and beautiful this idea is. I try not to sugarcoat American life when I talk about it with Armenians. But the interesting thing about getting to represent your country overseas is that you have a lot more latitude for putting its best face forward. Arguably, I have a responsibility to do it. So if I’m supposed to represent my country as I understand it, “Irishman” is exactly what I shouldn’t be. This is what bothers me, and something like it bothers other Volunteers, too.

But finally, I am one man representing a big country, and I’ve only got two years to do it. The truth is that representing the United States is impossible work. This is probably why Walt Whitman, America’s poet, reserved the right to contradict himself as much as he pleased. Because I, the American from America so eager to teach American culture in Armenia, have just cracked open a beer, and after I publish this, I’m going to go read one of my favorite Irish books and listen to some Irish music I enjoy, and nobody can stop me while I take a temporary vacation from being American. I am vast, I contain multitudes, and apparently some of them are Irish. Emphasis on the -ish. Wishing you a happy St. Patrick’s Day from Armenia,

Sláinte!

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