Growing Up With a Foreign Name

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.

Growing Up

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.

In Closing

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.

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  1. Nice article.

    I relate 100%. Having lived in 5 states in my life, everywhere it’s the same: “…… Yeh.. Yeye, Yicken? ” or “….. *raise hand* That’s me fool. *smile* it’s Yichen. Yee – Chen.. Yee- ah that’s close enough).

    As an adult, it’s become habit for me to correct people, to anticipate people’s reactions to my name, and to be patient with others on the first tries. It makes introductions and new connections even more arduous for the introverted souls like me. I also don’t expect people to remember my name anymore unless I want to ensure I’m remembered (Interview, first date :), etc). I build in excuses/shortcuts for people in more casual settings – for those short interactions, I’ll suggest calling me “Yi” or “Chen.” Or if I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, I’ll laugh it off and offer to remind them later, which gives everyone an out to move on except for those who care to know me.

    In younger years growing up, I’ve heard it all. Yicken. Eechen. Yitchen. Yi *pause* chen. And kids had a blast with my last name: “Wang”. “Itchen my Wang” was a common one. “Mr. Wang” gets laughed at as much as “Mr. Dick,” and If I had an itch for every time I heard one of these derivatives, I’d have no skin left on my… Wang – See how the years have made me light-humored on this! The alternate is annoyance or anger which won’t do anyone any good.

    Ultimately I had a chance to change my name when I became an American Citizen in my late teens, and it was an easy answer – No thanks. I did not go through all this shit just to discard my name for a generic one! And the thinking at the was also, there’s a million Johns, Andrews, Jakes. Over time I’ve come to realize more and more that my name is linked to my identity, and all those years of defending it has made me proud of it, not to mention how it’s roots stem from my ethnicity. “Wang” means emperor in Mandarin Chinese. “Yichen” is actually two words “Yi” and “Chen”, each with a unique meaning given by my mom at birth. Why would I toss that gift away? A google search today reveals there’s quite a number of Yichen Wang’s out there, but as cheesy as it sounds, there’s only one of me, and the journey revealed that.

    You and I took the longest road Ari, but it’s given us a perspective and appreciation that many others don’t and can’t relate with. And if that sounds elitist, give us a few of these moments- we’ve earned some slack after all we have and will put up with!

    P.S. – For the record I’ve always called you ‘Ar – Ee.’ If you want to enforce a different pronunciation of that, do let me know. Or maybe we can go back to Ari-titties. I like that one.


  2. Thanks for sharing, Yichen! You’re right in that going through this difficult experience in our youths us provided us with unique perspectives. Ultimately, trials such as this open the door to allowing us to be more compassionate and understanding towards other people and cultures.

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