Monday, January 28, 2013
What’s in a name? A lot, when the government deems you “first name unknown”
We take for granted the little things that make up our identities.
The U.S. definitely teaches you many things: especially if you are an international student who has traveled to study here for the first time. And one of those lessons is the importance of a surname.
Now as humans, we take many things for granted in life. Sometimes the people we love, our comfort zones and the luxuries we can afford are just aspects of everyday life. But little would we think of how much we take for granted our most important identity: our names.
I should know. I have the egregious handicap of not having a surname altogether. My name simply is my first name and my middle name, which is my father’s name. This, of course, has been the custom and practice of many families and communities from the South of India where I hail from. Generations of my forefathers have never had a surname. We lived happily this way, too.
Our schools and universities blissfully acknowledge this sentiment and make no fuss about it. All my life in India, whenever I filled out an application or told my name to a government official, I would gleefully explain that I only have a first and middle name. The government official by default would ask me if I am South Indian, and then we would proceed to talk about the beautiful natural forests and cuisines there for the next five minutes.
So, when I applied for my passport, I made sure that my name was spelled correctly and that the surname field was left blank.
Of course, I knew hundreds of others who had the same name format, and I was almost proud that my name was unique until I decided to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. Then, my bubble burst right on my face.
That’s when Uncle Sam reprimanded me in no gentle terms for my sin. Here in the U.S., all government records and identities are indexed and classified according to surnames. The surname fields in any document or application are always mandatory.
Thus, when I received my I20 form, it had christened me as FNU Abhijit Sunil, where the university put in my given names as my surname and First Name Unknown. This apparently is the norm that the U.S. government instructs universities to follow for special cases like mine.
But this was just the start. The visa officials follow a completely different set of norms, and they split my name and put my father’s name as my surname. So, by the time I had flown to the U.S., I was already the proud owner of three sets of names.
But this was just the beginning of my journey. When I applied for my Social Security number, the Social Security office stylized my name according to my I20, following their own norms.
But, when I applied for a driver’s license, they informed me that my Social Security card has to match my visa. But, the Social Security office follows the I20, which follows my passport which doesn’t have a surname. Yes, this indeed looks like a Mensa puzzle. If I solve this, I will get my driver’s license.
The root solution, of course, now seems that I should change my passport to include a surname and stylize it according to my visa. This experience definitely teaches me to acknowledge the simple "pleasures" of life you cannot take for granted – not even your own name.