|Original Pinup Girl (OPG), Betty Grable|
The Post Office is most often (wo)manned by a lady named Betty, aged sixty-some years. She is a proper Betty, meaning she was born in the forties, a time when the name “Betty” was quite popular for baby girls for whom their parents had grand dreams. These Bettys would go to college, marry well, start families and… not name their children Betty because by the time the later decades rolled around, other names were more in vogue.
‘Betty’ came to represent females born into the atomic age, the golden forties and fifties, when people still said things like, “Gosh darn it!” and “Jiminy!” Bettys were wholesome, pure and happy. My parents, along with thousands of other Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, only got part of the memo. They disembarked and met plenty of happy, wholesome Betty’s, but did not know that the name Betty, while happily employed by hundreds of thousands of American women in their mid-thirties (Betty’s age when my parents immigrated to the states) was one, short for ‘Elizabeth’ and two, utterly passé by the time their own daughter was born in 1986. Never mind that ‘Betty’ in the Archie Comics is hot stuff (and a little slutty) or that Betty Grable is the OPG (Original Pinup Girl), ask any young pregnant couple today if they’d name their daughter ‘Betty’ and they’ll probably shake their heads, “No way.”
This led to irritating phone conversations with another Asian Betty from high school who was quite unlike myself but because we shared the same ethnicity and the same name and the same academic aspirations (honors, AP courses and a prestigious four-year university) were often lumped together and called, much to my displeasure, “The Bettys.” (Although this Other Betty nearly died with happiness when she got into UCI, which made me realize we were not on the same playing field. No offense, Anteaters. If it makes you feel any better I went to community college, which for a high achieving teenager is no better than going to UCR).
Once, during sophomore year, she asked for my phone number.
I’m pretty sure I avoided her at graduation, and last I heard she was pursuing her dreams at UCI. A few years ago a grainy photo of her popped up on Facebook and it was apparent she was still cutting her own bangs. I wanted to message her, “Stop that.”
But that’s just Other Betty being Other Betty.
In the years since graduation, I’ve toyed with the idea of changing my name or, when I come out with a book, taking a pen name. Names matter, which is why Natalie Herschlag became Natalie Portman, Amanda Lee Rogers became Portia de Rossi (and a lesbian), and Shad Gregory Moss became Lil’ Bow Wow (or now, just Bow Wow). To give some examples that apply to my own aspirations: Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand and Howard Allen O’Brien became Anne Rice. What? Yes. Her real name is Howard.
Sometimes I take to asking people, “Do you think I look like a Betty?” And the answer is almost always a perplexed look, because that’s a strange question to ask, then a dawning realization that they too, subconsciously, have practiced making snap judgments about people’s names. Everyone knows a Larry that looks like, well, a Larry. Everyone knows an obese Marge. Everyone knows a princessy type named Priscilla. And if your Larry, Marge or Priscilla don’t match their perceived personas, then they’re nominal outliers. I’m not a Betty. But I’m Betty. And they know what I’m asking. Thoughtfully, they almost always reply, “No, you don’t. You don’t look like a Betty.”
Mixed feelings ensue.
“Aha,” I think, “So I don’t look like a Betty.” Then what? What name does my person, my bearing evoke?
“I was,” my mother once said, “going to name you ‘Jane.'”
“Jane!” I echoed, thinking immediately of ‘plane Jane,’ and even more pessimistically of all the corpses labelled ‘Jane Doe’ I’d seen on CSI. But I was intrigued.
“Why? Why Jane? And why not Jane?” I thought of Janes Austen, Smiley and Eyre, the last of whom is fictional but a heroine all the same. I could see myself as a Jane.
“Your Chinese name is 珍 (pronounced zhen or roughly, jen)” my mother replied, “And Jane was the closest English name to that.”
It was a such a simple explanation, but one I would have accepted had she named me so. But what made her decide against it?
“Then we met that Betty,” my mother said, “She was so bright, so kind. And warm. I really did hope my daughter would have those qualities.”
I nodded, turning my name around in my head, “Did I turn out as you’d hoped?”
My mother smiled enigmatically, thinking no doubt of all the conversations we’ve had in which she’s advised me to temper my temper, not be so judgmental, and to be more empathetic. She neither confirmed nor denied and left all the letters of the alphabet up in the air. But a mother is nothing if not bright, kind and warm.
“I know now,” she said, “that I could have named you Flower Ho, as your Grandpa wanted me to do, and you would have turned out just as well.”
I snorted. Flower Ho! Who knew my grandpa had such spectacular tacky taste? I paused for a minute, imagining life as a girl named “Flower” and then as a young aspiring writer named “Flower” and wondering why in the hell people weren’t buying anything by someone named Flower Ho. People would be confused about the genre. Was it weird Asian Fetish Literature? Soft erotica? A book on gardening? It didn’t matter. My mother had the good sense to distinguish between tacky and what, in her mind, felt timeless.
Suddenly That ‘Betty’ seemed to me an angel from heaven.