I'm Not Sure How to Pronounce My Own Name

I'll answer to all of the pronunciations I've heard throughout my life.
Publish date:
April 21, 2016
names, japan, Heritage

Anyone who has an "ethnic" name gets asked how it's pronounced all the time. Usually they explain, proud of their unusual name and their heritage, indignant that North Americans are so provincial. (Learn some different languages, why don't you?)

But if you asked me the correct pronunciation of my name, I DO NOT KNOW.

It's a long story.

My parents immigrated from Japan in the late '60s. When my twin sister and I were born, I was given the name Mari. It's Japanese. Show it to a Japanese person and ask them to say it in order to hear how it's supposed to sound.

Not even my parents call me that anymore.

After a couple years of kicking around Canada, we moved back to Japan. Six months later, my dad decided that he liked Canada better. My mom said I told you so. We finished off the school year, I said bye to my pre-kindergarten boyfriend (I only remember his awesome wind-up robot toys), we packed our things, and re-immigrated.

I guess during that time, my dad decided for us that since we were committing ourselves to this nation, we would learn English and get English names. I'd forgotten most of my Japanese by the end of the year. For kindergarten, I became "Mary." You know, to make it easier to fit in.

Several years of being an outcast weirdo later, I decided that, for paperwork purposes, I would revert to the original spelling of my name. I retained the "Mary" pronunciation, though, to keep things easy.

It's much, much easier to sneak in a spelling change than a pronunciation change, as it turns out.

I found this out at the age of 34 or so. I had a job where I worked with a New Zealander, and she preferred pronouncing my name Mah-ree. And so the other people began calling me that, and they would introduce me to other people that way. I just kind of let them, since it's pretty close. The vowels are just longer. I find it a little hard to pronounce, quite frankly.

As someone who worked primarily in print/web, it didn't matter too much. Because of my twin sister, I'm used to being called all kinds of things that aren't my name. But when I started to do little things for radio and TV and public events, people wanted a definitive answer.

"Well there isn't one," I'd say. "It's a long story."

People who've known me for a long time call me Mary. People who've known me since the mid-'00s sometimes use the Mah-ree pronunciation. These days, on the phone, I just default to Mary because it's less complicated to explain and spell and make the call uncomfortable.

I feel like I've betrayed my ancestors. Which I have. I no longer speak my mother tongue. Never even tried to learn, though I've told myself I would.

It's worse for my siblings, who were given unambiguously English names. One of my sisters has legally changed it; the other one hasn't bothered, but neither of them have ever thought about reclaiming their Japanese names. My little brother has an English first name and a Japanese middle name. I even tried to make Mah-ree a thing. It only sort of worked, and I feel weird about it still.

But maybe this is how it's supposed to be?

My name doesn't stick to me. English isn't my first language, but I've made my living by being very, very good at it. I'm a grammar nerd, but I also love the way that the language adapts and hybridizes; the way that other languages can impose themselves on the colonizer. Maybe as someone who is read as an outsider ("No, where are you really from?") my signifier is meant to be slippery.

It's neat, though, that as my world has gotten bigger, I've found other Maris. There is another Mari in the XO stables, and she pronounces it Marie, like in French. There's also a Maricar, who goes by Mary. XO editor Marci has a cousin named Mari who is Mah-ree. There are artists, poets, athletes, a former Prime Minister of Finland. My favorite is Mari, mother of Ultraman.

It's ethnically vague: Scandinavian, Spanish, Estonian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Tamil. I like that people can't tell. My family name is sometimes mistaken for Italian, which I find charming.

I can't settle on a pronunciation; I'm actually more comfortable with the ambiguity. I prefer to tell the story than to correct people when they get it wrong. There is no wrong. Pick one. I'll probably change my mind someday, anyways.

My name, written in kanji, means "truth." Maybe the truth isn't black and white.