By: Nia Alavezos
It’s always important to remember where you’ve come from. It’s easy to forget amidst the chaos of modernity, but we all have a family history. We’re only standing where we are because of the sacrifices of our ancestors.
I’m Greek Orthodox and both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Greece in the ‘30s and ‘40s. My mother’s parents came to the U.S. because they were evading the Nazis during WWII. They grew up in separate Greek villages and stood in their homes as they watched the Nazis march into their country.
My grandfather soon fled with his family and hid in the mountains surrounding the village in fear of being murdered in his home or sent to neighboring concentration camps. My grandmother was in school, only a child, when the Nazis took her and other children outside to showcase a public execution. They proudly hung a man in front of the children to prove a point, “this is what will happen if you rebel against us.”
My grandparents came to the United States as refugees, seeking a better, safer life in a new country. They traveled via boat, alone, and without knowing a single word of English.
I’ve never known that level of fear nor had my freedom taken away from me. I’ve been out of my comfort zone more times than I’d like, but I’ve never had to leave my family in one country and travel alone to a foreign one. I’ve never had to leave my family behind. I can only imagine what they went through during the days they were surrounded by such evil; the fear they felt when they started making a new life for themselves in America. Imagining all of that isn’t enough.
As a child, I was always embarrassed about my heritage. I was born in Colorado, but grew up in Orlando, Florida. The elementary school I went to was pretty diverse, but I still stood out like a sore thumb against the other whiter children. My skin color was darker, my hair jet black, my arms far hairier than I’d like, my unkempt eyebrows like fluffy caterpillars, and I was the tallest girl in my class. It was hard for me to make friends at first because I just couldn’t blend in; I was “that” girl.
If my looks betrayed me, then my name didn’t help either. My full name is Evyenia Fotini Alavezos – I was named after both of my grandmothers. You can probably guess why I decided to go with Nia later on in my life.
I thought school was OK overall. It wasn’t my favorite, but I DREADED the first day of every school year. I will always shudder in fear just thinking about roll call. Because of my last name, I was always the first on the list and it was the same until I graduated college in 2014; always #1.
When the scheduled classes began, the students’ excited banter slowly diminished into whispers before fizzling out completely. The teachers always ruffled their papers in front of their podium before getting to business.
“I’m sorry if I pronounce any of your names wrong,” they would always say with a chuckle, followed by “bear with me” or “let’s see who we have here.”
Almost immediately after, they would look at the roster and freeze. I could tell they were in mid-panic as they studied my name, mouthing different shapes as they attempted to pronounce it in their heads.
“Ee… ea… v..Eugyenziad?” Some would ask.
Others got close, but failed miserably in the end, “Evvvvyy… Evyyen…Evyenngiana?” Nope, nice try. Game over.
Depending on my mood, I would instantly interrupt the teacher, shoving my hand in the air like I was trying to break through ice.
“That’s me!” I would say, with a forced smile. Sometimes students in the class would snicker and exchange whispers. My cheeks would start to feel like a fire was igniting under my skin, and I could tell my face was turning dark red.
“Oh my… I presume I didn’t pronounce that correctly?”
It would take me at least 5-10 tries before I told them their way of saying my name was fine. I always had hope that at least one of my teachers would learn to pronounce my name the right way, but it never happened. 80% of the time they were way off even after all the attempts. I never corrected them the rest of the school year because it was far too much trouble. When they called on me it was equivalent to nails being dragged over a dry chalkboard. It wasn’t until middle school that I started telling people to call me Nia because “it was easier.”
I always wished I had a normal name. Something like Jennifer, Michelle, or maybe even Brittney. My sister’s name is Marcie. Can you imagine how angry I was growing up? I was the bigger sister, and in turn I had to take the sword and deal with all the embarrassment; I had to be given the full blown Greek name. Marcie has a Greek name, but it’s not her real name and it’s not on her birth certificate, so it didn’t count to me. That really meant nothing and she got to have a pretty normal school experience.
I would berate my parents with questions like, “how come Marcie got the normal name?” and “how come no other Greek people I know have my name?” There are so many other easy Greek names like Maria, Sophia, Effie, etc., that my parents clearly missed out on when I was born.
When I was growing up in Orlando, all of my family was in Colorado. It was hard living so far away from my family and trying to relate to non-Greeks. Even when I went to the church in my city, on the rare occasion, the people were different. They were all Greeks, but they weren’t the Greeks I was familiar with. They did things differently and had other priorities in the community.
Since all of my friends were non-Greeks, some full blown Americans and others ranging from a plethora of unique cultures; I celebrated things differently than practically everyone I knew.
We celebrated Easter at different times every year depending on the Greek Orthodox calendar. In school, when teachers were planning activities based on the upcoming religious holiday, it was hard trying to relate because I wouldn’t be celebrating it until the following month.
For Christmas, we didn’t do the traditional Christmas dinner – we celebrated with Spanakopita, pastichio, lamb, potatoes, salad, and copious amounts of feta cheese. My friends had no idea of this foreign food that I spent my whole life gleefully consuming. They were even confused when we didn’t have the normal turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving.
Weddings and even funerals were celebrated with an obvious distinction – each seemed to be taken an octave higher. With weddings, we celebrated by dancing, drinking, and excessive amounts of food. We were loud with jubilation and wanted to show our love for the newlyweds. The American weddings I had gone to were so boring to me, so dull.
With funerals, we celebrated the life of the deceased almost the same way – except we wanted everyone to hear our wails of desperation and see our constant stream of tears for the life we just lost. American funerals were quiet, too quiet – you couldn’t even hear a sniffle in the aisles during service.
Of course now, looking back, I realized I was foolish to ever be embarrassed of my heritage. I was incredibly daft to have gotten angry at my parents for continuing the tradition of being named after my ancestors. As an adult, I am so thankful for my individuality. I’m glad my parents named me after my grandmothers so that I can carry their legacy with me every day. I hope to pass down the same lessons when I have children. I’m glad that I don’t have a normal name, and that I stand out from the crowd. It’s startling at first realizing that you’re so different, but it makes you appreciate your life so much more. I wish I had appreciated all the different cultures, customs, and food when I was growing up, but accepting who I am and where I come from is now the most important part of finding my true meaning in this world.
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