The first day of school is always one of excitement and trepidation. Whether it is in elementary school or college, you are in a state of anticipation over seeing who your classmates will, discovering what your teacher or professor will be like, and attempting to put your best foot forward and make a great first impression.
If you have a foreign name, there is a specific moment on that first day that you either dread or look forward to with amusement : the attendance roll call.
I’m going to speak based on my own personal experience, though I’ve been told it does not differ much at all from others with names that are not commonplace English/American in nature.
My full name is Aristidis Marousas. Seeing that written out alone might be enough to give you an idea of the difficulties I faced growing up. On the first day of classes, it was essentially guaranteed that the teacher or professor would pause (sometimes as long as an awkward ten seconds or more) before attempting to read my name. I’ve even encountered multiple situations where they have literally said “I’m not even going to try this one”. Throughout the years, I soon came to be ready for this moment and would shoot my hand up. At first, this whole scenario made me feel separate from and even a bit ostracized. By the time I reached college, though, this ritual became something of a joke to me. “Let’s see how badly they will butcher my name this time”, I would think to myself.
When I was younger, it was quite a different story. The teacher’s struggles were the same, but the classmates around me were younger, less mature, and more cruel.
Instead of laughing with me at the teacher’s difficulty in pronouncing a name, they would laugh at me and at how strange and foreign the name was in their minds.
In private, they would purposefully mispronounce the name in all sorts of ways that ranged from silly (Aristotle) to hurtful (Aris”titties”). I even had one kid when I was in high school remark that my name sounded like some sort of disease.
I’m fortunately at a point now where I am able to brush it off and chalk it up to ignorance and immaturity on the part of the individual, or realize they are just innocently joking around with me. It wasn’t so easy for me to do this when I was younger.
Beyond the obvious impact of teasing and bullying, there was an additional consequence that went deeper and that I still feel to this day.
Crisis of Identity
I began introducing myself as Ari. I would, and still, joke that “it is much easier than Aristidis”. It is done in an almost shy and embarrassed sort of way sometimes.
But the issue continued. Even “Ari” (the “A” pronounced similarly to the “a” in “apple”) is somehow difficult for people as I am frequently having to correct people who mishear or misinterpret my name as Larry, Harry, or even Eric. I have some friends and contacts call me Ari as in “air-ee”, and others (including someone I was in a longterm relationship with) pronounce it as you would the “ar” in “arcade”. It has gotten to the point where I don’t even know what the correct English pronunciation should be, and have to remind myself by sounding my name out in Greek (closest approximation is the “apple” example above).
The aforementioned issue was that, regardless of whether I went by Aristidis or Ari, I soon began to feel disassociated from my name. Yes, those are the names that I would answer to (or the closest variations that people were able to say). It is a very strange feeling to feel disconnected from the name you were given at birth. I eventually got to a point where I would feel strange even addressing myself with my name or nickname when thinking or talking to myself in private.
While our name does not define our true selves, it is one of the very few things given to us during our lives that cannot be fully taken away. Our name is our identity to the world and, to a great extent, to ourselves. Feeling disassociated from your name can lead to damaged self-esteem, self-worth, and more. It also impacts your daily interaction with other people.
The following are questions I find that I have asked and continue to ask myself too often. Am I Aristidis? Or should I be Ari? Which pronunciation of Ari? Does it matter? Should it matter? Will I look weak if I just go with whatever pronunciation this other person picks? Will I look pushy if I correct them? How many times is too many times to correct someone on your name? Who cares, it is just a name, right? I SHOULD care because it is MY name… right?
Unfortunately, I still do not have the answers to most of those questions. I am working on finding them, though. One thing I do know for certain is that I have no reason to be ashamed of my name. Aristidis is an Ancient Greek name with much cultural and familial significance. Ari is the go-to nickname in Greece, and so I feel perfectly fine going by that. The correct pronunciation, and how forceful I should be in maintaining it, is still very much a grey area. I will draw the line at Harry, Larry, Eric, or some other complete misinterpretation.
It Gets Better
The situation isn’t totally bleak. I’ve found that just as I grow more mature and appreciative of my name, so to do other people. There seems to be a change in perception towards other peoples and cultures that happens right around the time that we enter college and/or the workforce. It is as if someone flipped a switch and people find foreign names cool and interesting. I couldn’t believe how many actual compliments I started receiving regarding my name, my FULL name!
It is so refreshing to come across more and more people who actually ask how to pronounce the name because they are genuinely curious, want to be courteous, or a combination of both. It doesn’t hurt when I get a “that sounds like a Greek god!” reaction.
The purpose of this article (although some might call it a rant, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong) is to first and foremost let anyone out there with a foreign name, especially if they are younger and in school, know that they aren’t alone in the difficulties they are facing regarding that name. Whether European, African, Indian, Asian, or from any other origin, know that your name has history and significance. Even if you are the first of your name, this holds true because it is YOUR name and YOUR history.
Growing up in the US, and even UK, with an “exotic” name is inherently difficult yet understandable to a great extent. Geographically, both countries are islands to themselves (in the case of the UK, literally). On the Eurasian continent, culturally and linguistically diverse people have been living as neighbors for thousands of years. Because of this, there is a higher degree of acceptance for names and pronunciations that might be outside their “norm”.
As I said in the previous section, things do improve as we age and mature. The workforce and college open people up to new cultures and experiences almost automatically, especially in more metropolitan areas.
If I were to give any advice, it would be to stay strong and proud of your name. Maybe do some research into the origins and cultural history of your name to educate yourself. Then, if you think they will be receptive to it, pass that information along to friends.
With all that being said, please do remember that your name does not define you entirely. Nothing and no one can define you but you.
Thanks for reading! I would love to hear stories from your own experience. Feel free to reach out to us on social media or comment below.