My full name is my identity – immigrants shouldn’t have to change theirs to fit into Australia’s systems

<span>Photograph: Imagedoc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Imagedoc/Alamy

My full name is 40 letters long. As anyone who has watched a Sri Lankan cricket match would know, many of us have long names. This is because most have given names sandwiched between a lineage name and a surname. My lineage name, the first of my names, is Liyanamohottilage. If you asked my name, I would tell you it’s Minoli. But anywhere “official” insists on the name as written on my passport – even though their systems can’t handle it; they can’t pronounce it; and contrary to what the system assumes, my first name isn’t my given name.

… That could be me, my father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my niece, my nephew … It isn’t me

I was warned of “the name problem” before moving to Australia. Family and friends warned me that any time I interact with a service I would need to spell out my name and pronounce it multiple times. This process is repeated any time I am handed on to someone else. I’ll be fine, I said. I’ll just ask them to use my preferred name. Surely a country as multicultural as Australia would have figured this out, I thought.

My first encounter with the name problem was at university. The enrolment form asks for given names and a family name. Can I put down two family names, I asked. (I have two family names and two given names.) No, was the answer, unless my family names were the last two names on my official documentation, and they aren’t.

In Sri Lanka lineage name comes first (if you have one), and family name at the end (if you have one). So, in all university systems, my family name became my given name. I had to contact student affairs multiple times and finally became who I am – but only on my email address. A problem that wouldn’t have existed had they just had a field for “preferred names”.

While this was frustrating, it was still manageable. I only understood the severity of the issue when I registered for Medicare. For starters, the online form does not have enough characters to type in my full name. I don’t have the option of using initials either. What ended up on the system is a bastardised version of my name with several letters lopped off. When I go to get vaccinated, or to the GP, I have to build in 10 minutes to sort out the name:

“I’m sorry but I can’t find this name in the system.”

“Oh yeah, my name was too long, so they lopped off a part of it.”

“That’s a shame!”

“I know.”

“Here’s a printout kindly provided by the nurse at my first ever clinic who foresaw the ordeal I will have to go through. That’s how my name is in the system.”

My name – not just that of my entire paternal family – is my identity

When waiting at the hospital emergency room for my name to be called, I know it’s me not because they call my name, but by the pained expression on the face of the nurse – who I’m sure is concerned about mispronouncing it. As with all service providers I’ve come across, they take such effort to pronounce it right and to not offend me; both they and I become awkward and uncomfortable. My L-name is visually imposing, and doesn’t roll off the tongue unless you’ve had practice with Sri Lankan names.

As I wait to receive my new library card from the city library, the confused librarian appears with two separate cards. This has never happened before, he assures me, explaining that the system has printed two cards. My name stretches across both. Sinking into the familiar ethnic-person-encounters-white-systems, I smile and say “It’s my name, isn’t it? It’s too long”. We then sit together to engineer a version of my name that fits within the character limit of the system. A familiar dance at this point.

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At airports, I add-on time to sort out my boarding pass, because much like a library system, the airline’s system often doesn’t know how to print my name on a boarding pass. Then ensues a conversation with an immigration officer on why the name on my passport does not match the name on my boarding pass.

While no one in Sri Lanka would ever call me by my lineage name, the anglicised system used in Australia forces me to be a Liyanamohottilage Wijetunga; unfortunately, that could be me, my father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my niece, my nephew … It isn’t me.

Having seen me through this ordeal time and time again, my partner with his Christian name suggests I legally change my name and lose my lineage L-name. There’s a lot of research on name discrimination and hiring biases, and, considering I’m already at a disadvantage as a woman of colour, it makes logical sense to change my name.

I don’t want to, though. My name – not just that of my entire paternal family – is my identity. We immigrants lose a lot when we move across seas. Our names are one of the few things we have to hold on to; giving that up shouldn’t be an implicit requirement for assimilation and to belong.

Last week an east Asian nurse at a check-up empathised with my plight. She, too, had four names and knew the struggles of names that do not conform. Wait til you have to do taxes, she said laughing through the pain; You’ll have to file everything manually because the system doesn’t recognise us. I guess I now have that to look forward to.

• Minoli Wijetunga is a PhD student researching education and technology through a decolonial feminist perspective