Papa-Who? On #Greek Surnames, #School, and #RollCall. #MondayBlogs

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Ah, it’s that time of year again. Kids return to school, as do teachers and tutors. We have all been there, no matter whether we inhabit the role of instructor or student: early September, shuffling into a classroom different from the one we left behind back in June, greeting familiar faces and introducing ourselves to new friends. Those introductions can be awkward, especially if you have an “ethnic” name.

It wasn’t long ago when “Anglo-Saxon” seemed synonymous for “American,” the dominant culture suppressing all others to the point that surnames such as Cooper, Smith, and Williams were the safe and cuddly norm. A pity should you, or your distant relatives, have arrived on U.S. shores from a place where people are identified by syllabic denominations of far richer complexity: you were either forced to adopt a “colonized” version, or labeled as strange and “foreign.” “Abnormal” at the worse, “exotic” at best.

From our current context in this ultra politically correct contemporary world it may be difficult to imagine school children singled-out for their “un-American” names. But even I, born in the not-too-distant past of 1980, had a tough time come Autumn as fellow students chuckled when teachers struggled to pronounce “Papafrangou.” Ancient is the joke of the Greek-American kid slumping out of sight in his/her desk chair as Mister or Miss Johnson unintentionally slaughters his/her family identifier. This isn’t to say I didn’t, on some level, identify with the plight of my educators. I often tell people that I couldn’t even spell my last name until the beginning of second grade. Just too many damn letters to contend with! As I grew older I would reassure new teachers that the name wasn’t so difficult to pronounce if they took a deep breath and approached it one syllable at a time. Papa-fran-gou. They would inevitably smile in relief, thank me profusely for the clarification, and pronounce the name correctly from then on. Still, I believe hearing my last name garbled so many times left a certain impression on me.

When, as a teenager, my debut book of short stories Concrete Candy was published by Anchor Books I decided to use only my first name. This was partly because I didn’t want to deal with the mispronunciations of Papafrangou. This is not a new practice by any means, of course. Many writers, actors, politicians and professionals of various ethnicities decide to “Americanize” their names for a variety of reasons. As I grew older, however, I decided that never again would I take the easy way out. From then on I was going to proudly proclaim my last name, and everyone else would learn to pronounce it eventually. How’s that worked out, you may ask? Just fine. Great, in fact. Nowhere is this fact more evident than at my “day job” where I work with elementary students at an after-school program. When I first started tutoring children in a setting where they had to refer to their instructors by their last names, I inevitably contended with the wide-eyed reactions upon introducing myself.

“Hi, kids, I’m Mr. Papafrangou.”

“Mr. Papa-who?” would usually be their response. One kindergartener even looked at me with a pained expression and simply breathed, “That sounds kinda weird.” Another chirped, in her Disney-esque princess voice,“Mr. Papafrangou? Is that because you’re everybody in the world’s papa or something?”

Ha! Well… something like that.

But in the end, every single student I work with has learned, with minimal effort I might add, to say my name correctly. That makes me smile. I’m a proud Greek, and I treasure my family name. I hope you treasure yours, too.

Do you have an interesting or humorous anecdote involving your Greek last name? I hope you’ll share in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Papa-Who? On #Greek Surnames, #School, and #RollCall. #MondayBlogs

  1. Maria A. Karamitsos

    When I was growing up, I remember the dreaded roll call in class. The teacher would get to my name: “Maria (pause); Maria (pause), Maria uh, um, um… Is Maria here?” This somehow led to me telling people, “It’s not as scary as it looks.” Once I broke it down for them, it was better, but still not always correct. But at least I had a “regular” first name. My sister, Gia, had first name issues as well. Now, we hear the name often, but back then she was the only one we knew. She would often get “Ghia”, even “Guy-a”. Imagine her fright as a teenager at the DMV when she was called her to pick up her new driver’s license: “Piga? Is Piga here? Long last name, lots of vowels, starts with an F, probably Greek?” LOL

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  2. apollopapafrangou Post author

    That sounds like my experience, too, Maria. Funny thing is, neither one of us have particularly difficult names when it comes to syllable count.
    I think people do tend to get intimidated by the length of a lot of Greek surnames, and they just need to get past the fear factor. I’ve always admired George Stephanopoulos for not shortening his name.

    Ah, your poor sister! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. alexpolistigers

    My own surname is Slavidou – not too long, not too difficult. It generally gets pronounced with the stress on the wrong syllable by English speakers, but that doesn’t worry me particularly. I actually find it amusing. But spare a thought for my poor friend Despoina Charalambidou. In vain did she attempt to convince people that her name was pronounced Despina, not Des-POY-na. And let’s not even get started on her surname!

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    1. apollopapafrangou Post author

      Thank you for your comment! Ah, yes, it sounds like your friend Despoina (I’ve always liked that name) certainly has had a difficult time, but bravo to the both you for not shortening your surnames in all their Greek splendor! 🙂

      Again, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to check out my articles.

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      Reply
      1. alexpolistigers

        Thank you for following my blog too:-) I identify with a lot of things I have read on your blog so far – some things remind me of when I first came to Greece too. I shall definitely be coming back to read again!

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  4. Joanna Tsiftis Xylas

    My maiden name is SEVEN LETTERS: Tsiftis. Not too hard to pronounce for a Greek, or for anyone, for that matter. I quickly learned in elementary school to pre-announce, “The ‘t’ is silent–SIF-tis.” And I was quickly laughed at by my classmates. In high school, I got called all sorts of terrible names, like syphillis and stiff tits. Thank God those days are behind me. And so now I’m a school teacher who does not tolerate students sniggering over another student’s name. How relieved I was when I met Nick Xylas, fell in love, and we married 14 years ago. I thought, “Surely, this will be a piece of cake for people to switch from trying to pronounce my 7-letter difficult Greek name to a much easier 5-letter Greek name.” Right? Wrong! As I introduce myself as Mrs. Xylas over the phone, people immediately want to spell it with a “Z”. Then I explain, “No, ‘X’, like a xylophone.” Oh! Mrs. Xylophone! Um, no. SMH! And guess what subject I teach? Yup, you guessed it; I’m a music teacher.

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