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Rendahl: How I Became an ‘Odar’

I’ve been telling my Armenian story a lot lately. I’m repeatedly faced with the challenge of expressing why I’ve remained engaged with Armenia and the Armenian people for the past 13 years. Armenians used to ask me with an incredulous tone in their voices: “Aystegh inch es gortsrel?” (What have you lost here?) Now they just assume I’m a Diasporan Armenian until they know otherwise.

Kristi Rendahl will write a monthly column, "Odar's Corner," for the Armenian Weekly.

Most people, when they ask why you’ve lived and worked in a place like Armenia, don’t really want to hear much more than a sound bite. Because of this, I am not accustomed to unfolding the whole story: my motivations, my inspirations, my hopes, and the stories that bring them all together. My monthly column for the Armenian Weekly, “Odar’s Corner,” is intended to provide just such an opportunity.

Of course, I didn’t know that I was an odar (outsider/foreigner) until I met Armenia. My roots are in the prairies of north-central North Dakota, where I grew up on a farm founded by one of my great-grandmothers from Norway nearly 120 years ago. It is perhaps one of the more remote places in the U.S., with the nearest neighbors over a mile away and the school a 25-mile bus ride from home. You might think that sounds terrifying, but I loved it. Though I was intensely extroverted living among prairie grasses, gusty winds, and the occasional visit from a neighbor or UPS deliveryman, the farm was a place I felt healthy and free and, indeed, still do.

Just three weeks after graduating from a college in Minnesota with degrees in music and communications in hand, I boarded a plane bound for Armenia with the Peace Corps. My parents kept their anxieties mostly under wraps, and I was too naive to have any of my own. This was in 1997, a time when email was just becoming popular—before Skype, before Facebook, before inexpensive phone calls to the U.S. In my village, we received water twice a week for two hours, placed telephone calls in a central office, experienced regular power outages, and ate potatoes all winter. I’m no martyr for having lived here at that time—God knows the Armenians have seen far worse—but things were decidedly different then.

After the Peace Corps, I represented Habitat for Humanity International in Armenia to start the first affiliate there in collaboration with a group of highly capable people who went on to achieve remarkable things. My former colleagues have since transitioned into a Fuller Center for Housing affiliate, where they stay true to the zero percent loan principle that was a fundamental reason for my interest in this approach. During my fifth and final year of residence in Armenia, I worked with Made in Armenia Direct, a company that continues to inspire and promote excellence in Armenian artisanship.

Since those years, I have maintained my connections to Armenia and the Armenian people. Whether occasionally attending Badarak at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, hosting Armenians in my home, speaking about my experiences at events, lending a hand with projects as they arise, leading teams to Armenia, or conducting independent research for my doctoral program, there is no getting around it: Armenia is in my heart, and it’s here to stay.

Through my travels, I have met Armenians around the world. I’ve stayed with Armenians in Beirut, Damascus, Los Angeles, and New York. I recently met Armenians in Ethiopia who showed me the same kind of hospitality I’d grown accustomed to in Armenia, sending bottles of wine and soujouk and other Armenian specialties. When talking with other odars, I explain that being part of the Armenian community is something akin to being part of the Rotary or a union. People look for, and look out for, each other. An Armenian I met on a street in Aleppo, Syria, said, “Kani vor du mer lezun es sovorel, yes kezi kpashtpanem. Yes kezi kpashtpanem!” (Since you’ve learned our language, I will protect you. I will protect you!) My internal response? Fantastic!

You might find my perspective excessively positive, but I hope you’ll also find it refreshing. I believe that little, if anything at all, can be built on negativity. It’s contagious and generally serves to discourage, disappoint, and disillusion. It may have its purpose in the pursuit of justice, but if not balanced with positive, we risk paralysis and endless excuses for inaction.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve seen the world in its horrific reality. I’ve seen children with distended bellies in Uganda, families squatting on former garbage dumps in Mexico, political repression in Syria, the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, the rampant presence of HIV/AIDS in Botswana, and the educational achievement gap in my own backyard of St. Paul. I can see the negative, but I refuse to let that be my only lens.

With that background out of the way, I invite you to join me on a journey of reflection. You will not find hard-hitting political analysis in this column. Instead, you will find honest recounts of the stories and insights that have endeared Armenia and the Armenian people to me. And maybe you’ll be inspired to share some of your own.

45 Comments on Rendahl: How I Became an ‘Odar’

  1. Can’t wait to read more about your stores and experiences in Armenia. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences

  2. avatar Hovanes Gambaryan // August 4, 2010 at 6:10 pm // Reply

    I got a little teary reading this. I salute you and look forward to reading your columns. Thank you.

  3. Inspiring story. I would say: May the Force be with you, friend of Armenian people!

  4. avatar Kiazer Souze // August 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm // Reply

    I wish the American people that I first met when I was young would have said the same thing to me; “Because you have learned my language, I will protect you. I will protect you!” Instead, what I got was a push, a slap and a punch for being other than the ethnic makeup of the community that we lived in. Its about time Obama protect us for speaking the language of liberty and justice for all.

  5. avatar Grish Begian // August 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm // Reply

    Armenian culture can easily mix with “odars” and accept “odars” as one of them..
    Great article to read, and thank you Kristi!!

  6. Kristi jan, it really is kind of like being in rotary or a club, I’ve said so many times myself, and I’m glad you’re a part of the club :-)  Raffi (from your Yerevan days)

  7. What a refreshing view of life. Thank you Kristie for such a nice article. I look forward to reading your column… you are our very special odar and we will protect you.
    God Bless.!

  8. Kristi, I look forward to reading articles from our odar kouyrig.  Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  9. It sure is refershing to see and read Kristi’s article.. Not only she is beautiful but she truly caught my attention because of her love and dedication to my birthplace and people…

    You definintely found a great protection among Armenians Kristi jan.. and i am surprised you did not find a great Armenian man to marry..:)

    I am sure we will be reading many articles that affect our everyday lives as Armenians living on a foreign lands..

    Gayane

  10. I salute you Kristi for sharing your insights about our people and country. I would like to invite you to visit my armenianpoetry.net website to add to your Armenian experience and relive the Armenian spirit that you have already experienced. I look forward to read your insights about our people and country.

    Daniel

  11. This fine woman is more Armenian than most Armenians!

  12. avatar Gary (Garabed) // August 4, 2010 at 8:12 pm // Reply

    Yes…Kristi,,,there will be many of us looking to your writings.

    You are no ‘odar’. It sounds like your heart has been captivated by members of the Ancient Tribes of Armens or Nairis or Urartus & others? It doesn’t matter what we are called. We love life and even after all the damage done to our ancestors…we move forward and rebuild.

    Are you serious? Have you actually learned the Armenian language? You may be an inspiration to my own daughters (their mom is from your neighbourhood, Steinbach, MB) they may want to learn Armenian too? :)

    Best wishes to Kristi!

    G

  13. Kristi, I remember meeting you at the ANCA office in DC after your Peace Corps tour and was moved by your interest in the Armenian people but assumed you’d move on to the next phase of your life (as do most Peace Corps volunteers).  Very pleased to hear that you stayed involved as a member of our spuirkahayoutiune and I look forward to reading about your experiences in the Weekly.

  14. This column promises to be very interesting indeed.
    I can imagine it filled with beauty, grace and generosity, just like you are, Kristi Jan.
    I shall be reading it with pleasure and would be happy to help in any way I can.

  15. Loved every bit of your story.  I have one hope for your future in our “family” and that is you will use your wizardery with words to help us expunge the word “odar” from our experience as Armenians.  It’s time to lovingly embrace all the “odars” in our immediate and extended families as brothers and sisters.  Best wishes sister!

  16. Dear Kristi,
    Loved your article and look forward to reading many many more! Having been to 24 countries and 39 of the 50 states it never ceases to amaze me how the Global Armenian community is always always ready to welcome, embrace and share. Its refreshing to see that you have witnessed it as well and chose to write about it!
    Bachikner,
    Alfred

  17. Thank you! I love it when people understand that positive and realistic are not mutually exclusive. I’m really looking forward to reading your column!

  18. avatar Nerses Artan // August 5, 2010 at 1:28 am // Reply

    Your article is a breath of fresh air for all those who only critisize Armenians.Please do all you can to publicise our past achievements and the great inventors,artists,writers, designers,politicians,historical wanders and  a whole host of other things that we should be proud of.Being a historical race,I think it is important that people  including Armenians should have a better perspective of us and hopefully that includes President Obama.I remain thankful for your innovative work.Best wishes.
     
     

  19. avatar Sylva-MD-Poetry // August 5, 2010 at 2:21 am // Reply

    We all welcome rendahl 
    With…and with her smiley face
    and her traveling pen
    To our homes to our harts (hearts)

    Armenians love every race.
    Hate has no place
    Even in our genocided blood.
    Our love is Trustful
    Our love is Sincere
    Love ignite Us to hope and rise

    Of endless difficulties that every day we face.
    None can steel that gifted gene…
    ‘Love of Humans’…
    Birthed in Us
    For… To abide
    Calling our loving peers… is must
    To make them Happy

    To hear our Soulful Music
    And join our Dance.

     

  20. I’m so touched to have found such warm words in my email inbox this morning. Thank you, everyone.

  21. I can assure you that your daughters can learn the Armenian language, Garabed! If they’re interested in Western Armenian, I’d suggest that they check out this free, online tool: http://www.discoverarmenian.com/
    As for Manitobans, we consider them our brothers and sisters to the north!

  22. Can’t wait to read your Articles, Love the great attitude.

  23. Apres, Antoine jan. Misht lav yeghir.

  24. Apres, Raffi jan.

  25. avatar bournazian@gmail.com // August 5, 2010 at 9:43 am // Reply

    What a nice idea for a column!

  26. avatar Harry Milian // August 5, 2010 at 10:06 am // Reply

    God Bless you for your dedication to a people that need your kind of volunteerism.

    Asdvadz Mishd koo headed !!!

  27. Sure to be the best column in the Weekly. Can’t wait. Kristi, since you are no longer foreign to Armenia or Armenians, I fear you are no longer an odar.

  28. Thanks, Nyree — and lovely to meet you this evening!

  29. avatar C. dolbashian // August 5, 2010 at 2:09 pm // Reply

    Just here to add to the love fest! Looking forward to reading more of your articles. This gave me warm fuzzy feelings to last all day, thank you!!

  30. avatar Michael Mirakian // August 5, 2010 at 2:56 pm // Reply

    Dear Kristi
    You’re only Odar if you think you are! We are a generous people — we open our homes, we share our tables and are happy to share our culture too. Perhaps it’s because we were forced to adopt uncles and aunts from the available elders in the neighborhood, perhaps because so many remembered they had but scraps to eat, perhaps because growing up others didn’t know if Armenian was “like Italian” or something to eat like a salami. I’m happy that you’ve enjoyed our culture and people as much as I have. I will be following your column with great interest. Good luck, God Bless and by all means stop by some Sunday for some chicken and pilaf.

  31. It’s always been more interesting to hear an “Odar” speak about us Armenians than an Armenian. Thank you Kristi for sharing your thoughts, feelings and experiences. You’ve got yourself one other Lebanese-Armenian fan :)

    Looking forward to reading your next column.

    Peace!
    Dzila

  32. Dear Kristi!
    This great article confirmed your true and deep perception about Armenia and Armenians. Thank you for being so frank and clear with us. And, please, I would offer to rename Odar’s korner to “Harazat Ankyun”, because you are no more Odar for us.
    Best.

  33. Hi Kristi,
    Your column was inspiring. I will have to double my efforts to learn Armenian now that you’ve made it clear how useful the language can be elsewhere in the world. My wife and I got sworn in yesterday as Peace Corps volunteers and today moved to to our site to begin our service. Things have probably changed a lot here since 1997, although the water situation in our town seems to be no better than what you experienced. But in the village where we received our training for the past couple of months we could see a lot of improvements, and I have little doubt that this country will become prosperous sooner than most people think. I look forward to reading more of your columns.

  34. Kezi shat em siroum.  I look forward to the Odar Corner. Thank you

  35. Hi Kristi, I am an older Armenian American and find your story a true inspiration. Thank you for caring and being Armenian.

  36. Kristi jan thanks for finding me, hope you had a good time in Armenia. I’ll be reading your stories with great interest, Lena from your Yerevan days

  37. Tsavd Tanem Kristi jan!
    You have such a beautiful soul and spirit, caring and loving character, so you are harazat not odar. You are our treasure and won’t let anybody call you odar.
     

  38. Kristi Jan,
    Your column should be called How I Became Armenian or at least How I Used to be Odar.

  39. avatar MANUEL ODAR // August 18, 2010 at 3:48 pm // Reply

    I’m confuesed, my last name is Odar and for what I have read here is also a word that means foreigner in a despective way in the Armenian language. Can you please expalin this to me. Oh by the way I am originally from Peru in South Amarica and I was told twice for people here in NY that my last name was Turkish.
    Thanks,
    Manuel.

  40. Manuel,
    Yes, the word “odar” is used among Western Armenians to describe non-Armenians. It is not a disrespectful word (unless, of course, the speaker uses a tone that would suggest otherwise). I don’t know of any Turkish connections to the word, but I’m not the right person to comment on that.

  41. To Manuel,

    There may be a name in Turkish sounding like this Armenian word, but no, the word has no Turkish connection. And as Kristi correctly puts it, the word doesn’t necessarily carry a negative connotation. It just means a foreigner, an alien, just a non-Armenian. And in the context we are engaged in, like the “original odar” from Armenia, it rather suggests an amusing, interesting foreigner!

  42. Manuel,

    Aarsen is absolutely right. The word “odar” is Armenian and is not borrowed from Turkish. In Eastern Armenian, we do not emphasize the “d” and it sounds more like “otar,” as you would pronounce it in Spanish. There is nothing disrespectful in it at all. Translated into English, it simply means “foreign.”

    If I say “I would like to visit a foreign country” or “foreigners need passports” am I being disrespectful? I don’t think so.

  43. Dear Kristi,
    I look forward to your monthly column. You are one of my favorite “odars.”  

  44. thank you all for your comments.

  45. avatar Michael Benlian // October 31, 2013 at 10:56 am // Reply

    All these positive responses are sincere and authentic. Kristi, as you have said in your article, there are no words to describe your feelings, but your tears can express rather more. You, being an “ODAR” have done it, then why not us Armenians!!!
    All my love to you as a person and as a professional writer.
    You are a beacon for all Armenians. I want to say: “THANK YOU”.

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