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Episode 12: Culture clash

This week on the Relate Podcast, hear how two men—raised to distrust each other’s cultures—dive warily into incredibly uncomfortable territory... and connect despite their vastly different backgrounds.

Featured in this episode:


TAMARA STANNERS: Picture a long, flat country road that seems to go on forever in the middle of America. The only sounds you hear are the wind and the whirring wheels of a group of cyclists on an epic 4,000-mile journey across the country. It's for a really good cause. Everyone in this group is great, really friendly, except for there's one guy that you're really not that sure of. That's because you believe his ancestors may have played a part in the exile of your great-grandfather and the death of more than a million of his countrymen. That's what's happening on Relate this week. I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. Today ... well, if you've listened to the podcast, you know we talk about relationships, and you also know that relationships can be complicated.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, and this one is like historically complicated.

TAMARA STANNERS: This is producer Andy Sheppard.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So, for this one, we have to go way back to a place called Eastern Anatolia, which is today part of Turkey, and to this hugely traumatic event that started in 1915 — the death of one and a half million Armenians.

TAMARA STANNERS: The Armenian genocide.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yes, but unlike the genocides in Rwanda or in Germany during World War II, there's general consensus around what happened. The events leading to the Armenian genocide are contentious, particularly in the Turkish community. In fact, today, Turkey, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, continues to deny any role in planning this atrocity despite the fact that there's loads of documentation that shows that the state was in involved in this act.

TAMARA STANNERS: So, explain what this has to do with our cyclists on this trip across the United States.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, first, let me introduce you to Raffi.

RAFFI: I am born in Baltimore.

ANDY SHEPPARD: He's a proud Armenian-American.

RAFFI: Or an American-Armenian, I don't care which comes first. My parents are both born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Their parents came from Eastern Anatolia, which is Eastern Turkey today.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So, Raffi is one of the riders on this bike trip across the U.S. A lot of what Raffi knows about his family comes from writings and photos that his great-grandfather left behind. These include information on what villages they originally came from, and what used to be the Ottoman Empire, and today it's Turkey.

RAFFI: On my mom's side, my great-grandparents are from a village called Zara ... not the clothing company ... actual town, in north central Anatolia.

TAMARA STANNERS: So, the Armenians were a religious minority in the region, right?

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah. Really, it's one of those kind of repeating stories in history where some minority group does well in terms of education or wealth. They become a scapegoat for everything that's wrong in a society. In this case, in the Ottoman Empire. It all comes to a head around 1915, during World War I. During this time, Armenian men were targeted. They went village to village and targeted these men. Many of these men were killed and many of them were subjected to forced labor. Then, what they did ... and this is horrible. They would take the women and children and the elderly and lead them on these terrible, basically, death marches into the Syrian Desert. Now there was this one teenage boy and he had managed to escape one of these marches. He eventually made his way to Syria, to a refugee camp there.

TAMARA STANNERS: Refugees escaping to Syria instead of from Syria. Wow, it sounds so strange today, doesn't it? ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, no kidding. So, this boy, he would be in that camp for 10 years. In fact, he started a family in the camp before he would finally get a job in Beirut, working as a road contractor paving roads. That teenage boy was Raffi's great-grandfather. Raffi's parents both grew up in Lebanon and that's where they met. The stories of this genocide left this persistent fear in them.

RAFFI: They had fear that this could happen again. In a sense, it was a transmission of the trauma from the Armenian genocide with my grandparents and great-grandparents. Then, for my own parents to hear those stories, seeing their home-

ANDY SHEPPARD: Raffi's father eventually managed to find a job in the U.S. So, his parents picked up and started their lives all over again one more time.

TAMARA STANNERS: After hearing all of this, it's really hard to imagine that someone could say, "No. This genocide, it didn't happen the way you're saying it did. Your family didn't suffer the way you think they did." ANDY SHEPPARD: I know, but here's the thing.

ERSIN: So, the way that I was raised, I guess the best way to frame it would be what I would call Turkish denial. ANDY SHEPPARD: So, this is Ersin. Ersin went to college the same time, same school as Raffi. Ersin is Turkish-American. His understanding of what happened to the Armenians, well, it was very different from what Raffi's family knew.

ERSIN: What I learned growing up was that it was just this completely unfortunate accident.

TAMARA STANNERS: Just an accident.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah. I mean, Ersin says that his parents and lot of Turks that he knew growing up taught him that there was this legitimate military measure that was taken. They were deporting Armenians on mass from their homes because they were supposedly calibrating with Russian forces and doing all sorts of conspiratorial things against the government. In the process of this whole deportation, bunch of unexpected, unpreventable events happened that wiped out the Armenians while they were trekking to Syria.

ERSIN: Raids by highwaymen and also the outbreak of influenza and just very poor logistical planning, that's what I learned. The genocide myth, as it was put to me is like this glue, this binding forces, and it causes a huge amount of resentment and hatred among Armenians, Turks, and so I better watch out. I should steer totally clear from that or else I might be target of that hatred.

RAFFI: I had been told by more hard-line Armenians that, "Turks are bad. They deny the genocide," and we kept our distance.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So, at college, Raffi and Ersin, they knew that they were both there. They had bumped into each other before. They were both involved in the theater scene. They'd sometimes be in on the same improv sketch routines even. They always ended up keeping a safe distance. You do your thing, I do mine. That kind of deal.

ERSIN: I just remember something like him realizing that I was Turkish, which terrified me because I knew that he was Armenian. I didn't really have any Armenian friends at that point. I think he said something like, "Oh Ersin, you're Turkish." I was like, "Yeah." Then, he's like, "You know I'm Armenian, right?" I was like, "Oh shit. Where is this going to go?"

RAFFI: When I met Ersin, I learned he was Turkish. I felt a level of discomfort because of the cultural baggage, but we hadn't had any sort of concrete discussion about history or anything like that. So, eventually at some point it came up, and we quickly established that at that point he did not believe that there was an Armenian genocide.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Then, the 4K happened. The 4K is this 4,000-mile bike trek across the United States.

TAMARA STANNERS: Sounds amazing.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It turns out they didn't know it, but Raffi and Ersin had applied to be part of the cycling team that would bike across the United States. So, it was called the 4K for Cancer and it had this mission to spread awareness, raise funds in the fight against cancer.

TAMARA STANNERS: On a 4,000-mile bike ride across the United States, which is unbelievable, you probably have to work with your teammates.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, yeah. I mean, it's a fairly sizable group. What happened ... Raffi and Ersin, they joined their teammates in the early morning hours, just a couple of days after the end of the school year. They crammed their duffle into the back of the team's van. They tuned their bikes, and they went down to the harbor and dipped their ties into the waters of the harbor and then headed west. There's team-building stuff that happens at the beginning. Even with all these symbolic moments of togetherness, Raffi and Ersin couldn't yet shake the fact that they had to share the road.

RAFFI: We kept our distance.

ERSIN: I was one of, I think, three freshmen on that trip. Everybody else was either a sophomore, an upperclassmen. So, I felt very isolated.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It wasn't until Raffi started kind of listening in Ersin's phone calls that things started to shift gears.

RAFFI: I overheard his conversation with his parents on the phone. I would hear him say things that sounded familiar. I hadn't quite figured out yet how it all worked, but our dialect of Armenian has a lot of Turkish in it so he would hear me say things that were Turkish.

TAMARA STANNERS: So, Raffi and Ersin had both grown up with immigrant parents in the U.S., so that had to be something to bond over.


RAFFI: You have to marry a Turkish girl or an Armenian girl, and you have to ... just all the social norms that we sort of disagreed with or questioned, we found a lot of common ground.

TAMARA STANNERS: To me, it sounds like these could be friends maybe.

ERSIN: Raffi was somebody who, like he just didn't care about sort of social pretensions and he was really just very creative and always kind of being silly and artistic and that's a vibe that I really appreciate in people.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Ersin says that this creative vibe got them working together on music. So, they pull out Raffi's MacBook at water stops or in the evening when they were done riding for the day. They'd use GarageBand to arrange and mix these really silly songs. They'd play them for the rest of the team.


ERSIN: We would make these dumb songs about the trip, and then we kind of became a well-known duo.

TAMARA STANNERS: So, these two young men after spending, really, their entire lives being told to be afraid of each other are connecting. Like Raffi had been told to stay away from the Turks, and Ersin had been told to watch out for those Armenians. These two guys are biking side by side every day and now they're making music together.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, they're really connected.


RAFFI: Biking across the country together to fight cancer, having that common purpose and then learning and uncovering our common background was a great experience of transcending difference. By the end of the bike trip, we were like brothers. We were like best friends.

ANDY SHEPPARD: When you're raised to believe a certain truth, especially one that turns out to be false, it's hard to move forward in a relationship without looking back at who or what you might be leaving behind. I mean, even though Ersin came to recognize the genocide for what it was and he knew that the denial that he grew up with wasn't the narrative he believed in. He was left knowing that his parents and lot of other Turks weren't there with him. At least not yet.

ERSIN: From the other perspective, from the Turkish perspective, there is so much insistence on like, "Well, we didn't kill you on purpose." It's like, "Okay, but you accept that your actions played a role." That's generally our ancestors were somehow involved in this tragic event. Then, I mean, at some point when do we recognize that an absurd amount of blood has been spilled and that we are all neighbors and we're all part of the same community. When do we just acknowledge the enormous amount of pain in the room?

TAMARA STANNERS: So, have they sat down and actually talked through all of this together?

ANDY SHEPPARD: They have talked about it. Quite carefully, lots of sensitivity. They talked about the genocide. Actually, Ersin spent lots and lots of hours on his own pouring through the literature on the subject and trying to figure out new perspectives that are different from what he grew up being taught. The nice thing is Raffi says he doesn't try to push him on it. It's that Ersin has figured out a lot of this on his own.

TAMARA STANNERS: I don't try to push it on him. It's not my agenda to try to go and convince him of X, Y or Z. My interest is first and foremost with him as a person, I'm just there to support him on his journey and likewise.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It's been 10 years since they met on the 4K cycling trip. Ersin and Raffi both live in California now. They stay in close touch. They hang out. They talk about things that most friends do, music, or what books they're reading. They'll joke around with each other or pull out an old story or two from the time that they biked all the way across the U.S. Every now or then, Ersin will think about where he started out and what it took to get to where he is now.

ERSIN: Sometimes I wonder if it'll be possible for me to be close friends with Raffi if I never accepted the Armenian genocide. In the neighborhood that I'm next to there's a big mural. It says, "You're entitled to your own truth." Then it says, "So long as your truth doesn't encourage my destruction or the enslavement of my will." When there's a great historical tragedy, a tragic event like this, I wonder is it really possible to move on without justice and without that wrong being addressed? It's very nice that Raffi and I make silly songs together and that we can do all that, but sometimes I wonder whether any of that would be possible unless he knew that I cared. ANDY SHEPPARD: This story was brought to us and co-produced by Jackie Sophia. Thanks, Jackie.

TAMARA STANNERS: Now that story just goes to show that the simple act of starting a conversation with someone from a different background than you is a great way to bridge differences and to gain perspective. It turns out that this approach is good for business too. There's an article on the Relate online magazine called How Diversity Improves Work Culture in the Bottom Line. It's all about how your business can benefit from different perspective and different world views. You can find that at That's it for Relate this time around. In two weeks, an episode we're calling Best Customer Ever. It's the story of a man who since 2012 has visited Disneyland every single day. That's well over 2,000 times. We spent an afternoon in the park with him to try to figure out what keeps this guy coming back for more.

So, subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever you listen and we'll serve up that episode and bunch of other greats stories that we've got in the works. In the meantime, for more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit If you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners, talk to you soon.