American Flag

Here in America

“Here in America, we don’t use a maiden name as a middle name.”

Her emphasis was on “America”. Reminding me where I was and who was in charge. As though the huge flag behind her and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services badge on her arm wasn’t enough. With her declaration, she scratched out the name I’d printed on the document. The name I wanted.

“You can add it to the last name and hyphenate it,” she told me, “but you can’t replace your middle name.”

“But….” I protested, “Everyone I know did it that way after they got married. I don’t want my old middle name.”

“You can go through the court for a name change. Did you go to the court?”

Of course I hadn’t. I thought my marriage certificate was enough, as it had been for everyone else I knew. I dug through my folder to find it for her.

“That’s not good enough. You need to do it in the court. What’s your middle name?”

 She moved her hand to the top of the form and wrote my middle name where she wanted it to be. A few more quick scratches of her pen, and she added the name I wanted to the “aliases” section. I have aliases now. Like a spy. A criminal.

She sighed. Shook her head. “You’d be surprised how many people come in here and think they can just change their names like that. It doesn’t work like that. You need to go to the court.”

I couldn’t argue with her. You can’t argue with immigration officials when they have your future in their hands. You can’t risk upsetting someone on the wrong day and having your petition denied. You go along with what they say. You do as they ask. You apologize for being so ignorant, for being in the way, for doing everything so obviously backwards, even though you followed every instruction to the letter. They are right and you are wrong.

wrong way

I want to be angry. I want to be offended that I was told not just that I’d made a mistake or misread instructions, but that here in America, things are done differently. Because I know that’s ridiculous. Besides the fact that America isn’t a homogeneous mass, I can point to dozens of personal friends and professional acquaintances who have done exactly what this woman tells me is not allowed. Maybe it’s the truth; maybe there’s some fine print somewhere that says I can’t change my name with USCIS on the basis of a marriage certificate alone. But this woman dismissed me outright when I protested. She held fast to an approved script, instead of listening to me and seeing me as a person who needed help understanding the process. I am Canadian. I am white. I speak flawless English. I can only imagine how much more degrading it must be to face these people if you’re wearing a veil or struggling to find your words in your second or third language.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Civil servants aren’t known to be the most caring and understanding of individuals, and working with the public can harden and desensitize you until you see everyone as a problem instead of a person. But it is wrong for the words “here in America” to be used by a member of the agency that every single immigrant to this country will need to work with. I am already in America, contributing to America’s economy, helping save American lives with my work. Yes, I am an alien here, but I am here.

When I told this story to friends, I was reassured by some that things will improve once I become naturalized and acquire American citizenship. That thought is why I’m hurt and saddened by this experience, and not furious as perhaps I should be. To think that once I cross that line and pledge allegiance and get a tiny American flag to wave, my slate will be clean and it will be like none of this ever happened. I’ll be the exact same person before and after that ceremony, but everything will change. I don’t know if that’s what I want. Do I want to be one of them? But I’m also tired of fighting. What does my name matter, anyway? If they say my middle name has to stay, maybe I’ll just keep it.

“But it was alright, everything was alright, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” — George Orwell, 1984


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32 thoughts on “Here in America

  1. Samantha Brinn Merel

    I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. For the record, she was wrong. When I got married I moved my maiden name to the middle and no one said a word, and I never saw the inside of the courthouse. Good luck with the rest of the process, thinking of you!

  2. Renee

    I too made my maiden name my new middle name when I married. The person you dealt with is a poor customer service representative, much less a representative of what makes America great. Screw her. You most certainly should be allowed to change your name with proper identification. And maybe you don’t want to naturalize and become ‘one of us’. We all should respect your decision on that, but please don’t let someone like her influence that. America is full of a$$holes, but there are just as many good people who would be happy to open our arms to you and welcome you to the fold.

    1. Jen

      Thanks. I know she isn’t representative of the whole, and I’m trying not to let the experience bother me too much. I just want it all to be over, and if I need to join the club to make that happen, then bring it on. I’m done.

  3. Larks

    I’m sorry she was so disrespectful. On the one hand every state / country has its laws and we’ve all got to follow them but on the other hand there’s no need to be so weirdly imperialistic about it like, “Screw you, foreigner. You were doing it the wrong way before but now you can do it the AMERICAN way by which I mean the right way.” I hate the patronizing, superior attitude.

    I want to say the name change thing varies state by state but I’m not sure. I still haven’t gotten around to actually changing my name so I just have aliases.

    1. Jen

      You nailed it – it was the patronizing attitude that really bothered me. I’m not some idiot who didn’t read the instructions. I can accept that this is not how it’s done, but repeating “go to the court” half a dozen times doesn’t help me understand WHY I need to when nobody else seems to. Oh well. It will be over soon, I hope.

  4. Gia

    Ugh “Here in america” is so condescending! Not sure about the actual name change laws – but just go by the name you want informally. Lots of people do that

    1. Jen

      Thanks. I know she’s not representative of the whole. Just imagine, though, how many immigrants are forming an opinion of America based on dealing with people like this in an official capacity. It’s sad.

  5. Jared Karol

    Thanks for putting a voice to what I’m sure thousands – millions! – of people go through every year. Your Orwell quote at the end summed it up nicely for me. . . America, the all-knowing, all-powerful being will take care of everything, and everything will be just fine, if you just do as we say. . .

    1. Jen

      I felt like I had to say something about it, because it bugged me so much to be made to feel so insignificant, so ignorant. Thanks for reading.

  6. Kristin @kdwald

    My mother was told the same thing, but she had prefaced it with “In Germany, my sister was able to just do it.” For her, that’s where the “In America” part came from. My laziness solved the problem for me by just encouraging me to keep the name my parents gave me. The thought of changing credit cards and rental agreements and work documents was too much for me.

  7. IASoupMama

    How patronizing and awful! So not representative of any American I know. Even if the information she relayed is correct, there’s no reason to make you feel inferior — none at all. This has me fuming…

  8. Cheney Giordano

    Sorry you had to go through that. I think laws are different in each state, but I know in Connecticut your name is only your name if it’s the one on your Social Security card – I could write a book about how my name situation got messed up and I learned all about it – without your soc. card, you aren’t you. Freaky. Annoying.

  9. Ken

    Oh wow, I read your Dude Write post and now this one. You are having such a struggle with all of this. I know of people who change their names just because they felt a different one just suited them better and had less trouble than you are having.

    It’s a shame, you seem to jump through all of the hoops and still are told that you’ve done things wrong. I feel for you.

  10. Bee

    Her behavior was atrocious. Maybe the laws vary by state (though that wouldn’t make sense because citizenship is a federal thing), but when I became a citizen, I had 2 middle names and dropped 1. Granted, I was 14 and my parents took care of everything so if there may have been fees I don’t know about it. However, I know for sure that we didn’t have to go to a separate court to do it. I’m sorry this process has been a real strain.

  11. Natalie the Singingfool

    I agree with the aforementioned asshole comment. It’s amazing how a little power can go to someone’s head and whip them all into a frenzy.
    We are not all alike, as the powers that be would have everyone believe. Except ALL bureaucracies are assholes all of the time.

  12. Jack

    Sometimes I think some people go into civil service because they have no other place to apply their sad, miserable and insecure tempers upon others.

  13. Michelle Longo

    That sounds like a very frustrating experience. I can’t imagine what going through the immigration process must be like. And, for the record, when I got married I wanted to keep my middle name and drop my last name. They did the opposite – dropped my middle name and made my maiden name my middle name. Since they both start with the same letter it’s not a big deal, but annoying. Hope it all works out.

  14. Dana

    It angers me that you had to go through that. That’s all I’m going to say, because I might just go into a rant! Unfortunately I don’t have any helpful suggestions for you. I hope it works out!

  15. SouthMainMuse

    This was a perfect example of bureaucracy/government at it’s worst. Most everyone can identify with this experience. I’m so sorry for you this was on such an important thing/day. Welcome to America, right?

  16. Meg

    That’s absurd. As a civil servant myself I hate to hear we are being rude to those who are in fact our bosses. I also changed my maiden name to my middle name when I applied for my new Social Security card. I do hope things improve for you.

  17. Stacie @ Snaps and Bits

    I’m so sorry and so embarrassed that you were treated that way! I know so many people who put their maiden name as their middle name that I don’t understand this at all. I was lazy and kept my name, but use my husband’s socially since it’s easier. I hope this is the last experience of that type you have “here in America!”

  18. Dilovely

    “You see everyone as a problem instead of a person.” This is a great insight. I think a lot of people who work with people in general get to this point, on some days at least. Weird as it sounds, I sorta hope this woman was having a shitty day and couldn’t muster the patience, as opposed to that kind of rudeness being her norm.

    Here in Canada, I just added my maiden name to my middle name, so now I have two middle names officially, plus my married last name. But many institutions have trouble with this, and drop my maiden name from the mix for the purposes of their documentation. There are many versions of me.

    Speaking of America – if you become a citizen, do you get to keep your Canadian citizenship as well, or do you have to drop it?


    I behalf of everyone “here in America” I would like to apologize for her being a bitch. You can totally have your maiden name be your middle name. That’s how may mother-in-law did it and many of my friends. You can change your name to anything you want, as we all learned from Phoebe (Friends) who changed her name to Princess Consuela Banana Hammock.


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