MARTHA ANI BOUDAKIAN
My great aunt Tsainig refused to change her name when she came to the United States from Western Armenia in the 1930s. Her older brother, my grandfather, anglicized the family name Hampartsoumian when he came to the United States several years earlier. He shortened it to Hampar and all other members followed suit. With her fighting spirit, Tsainig, whose name actually means "little voice" (which she has anything but) insisted on keeping her name as Hampartsoumian. She would not compromise something as precious to her Armenian identity as her name.
Two generations later, my life is a different story. As an adolescent I wanted desperately to get rid of any attributes that marked my Armenian identity. I tried to remove all of my body hair, plotted the date of my nose job and breast reduction surgery, and imagined how I would neutralize my name. I wanted nothing more than to mold the telltale signs of my Armenianness into something that just didn't stand out—into something "normal." My grand transformation also included failed attempts to starve myself and to control my volatile Armenian spirit, in short, to make myself as little an aberration as possible from WASP culture. I believed that despite my attempts to attain normality, I would never be good enough, because I was not made of the right stuff.
What does "normal" mean anyway? Calling something a cultural "norm" usually means following the ways of those with the most political and material resources in any society. They define and impose their experience of normality for everyone. The concept of cultural norms in multicultural societies is historically enmeshed in power, colonialism, and control. In the United States, norms are defined and imposed by white, upper-class men, as they are in much of the world. Any way of life that differs from that elite patriarchal norm is marginalized until it is conveniently co-opted by the dominant culture; even then it remains marginal. "Passing" for normal means trying to emulate the dominant culture, in order to survive in it. To break this oppressive cycle, we can refuse