The Post Office in my home town was, up until she retired just a year ago, 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 most likely not name their children Betty. By the time the later decades rolled around, there were other names were more in vogue.
‘Betty’ came to represent a name from the atomic age, the golden forties and fifties and even earlier, when people still said things like, “Gosh darn it!” and “Jiminy!” Bettys were wholesome, pure and cheerful.
My parents, along with thousands of other Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, only got part of the memo. They disembarked on U.S. soil in the 70’s and met plenty of helpful, wholesome American Bettys around their age. What they didn’t know is that the name ‘Betty’, while happily worn by hundreds of thousands of American women in their mid-thirties was one: usually 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.”
In the 80’s people were not dressing very well, but they had the sense to grace their delicate baby daughters with sweet, ultra-feminine names that rolled melodiously off the tongue: Stephanie, Tiffany, Amy, Brittany, Emily, Jaime, Melanie – names that belonged to young, sparkling princesses, not the dowdy and dull ‘Betty’ that my parents, utterly oblivious to the name’s originator ‘Elizabeth’, dropped upon me.
To hate one’s name comes uncomfortably close to hating oneself, but I take solace in that ‘Betty’ is a tad sweeter than Beatrice, which sounds like a parasite, and two tastes sweeter than Bernice, an apt name for a woolly mammoth in a comic strip. I shudder to think of all the other women my parents might have met who possessed all the qualities they hoped their daughter would have but whose name their daughter would not want. God help my self esteem if they’d met a beautiful and intelligent Olga. But my parents met a Betty (not the one that works at the post office, who was growing up in West Virginia at the time) and they liked her very much.
“She was very kind,” my mother recalls of this vague character, “She was assertive, smart, and confident. I thought, ‘I want my daughter to be just like her,’ and so I named you after her.”
Ask my mother to provide further details and she shrugs; there aren’t any.
So hello there, my name is Betty. I am a twenty-seven year old, Chinese-American Betty. My mother named me after a stranger now in her seventies. Or perhaps dead, our shared name etched upon her gravestone.
I get a lot of senior-citizen mail, because the junk mail bots (or whatever entities that trawl through data and make shallow snap judgments about to whom to send promotions) see my name, the neighborhood I live in, and assume that I’m probably over age sixty-five, retired, and want a free trial subscriptions of Redbook and More.* I don’t. Which is not to say I won’t read them. After all, preventative skin-care tips are welcome to a twenty-something Betty who plans ahead.
The good thing about having an archaic name is that in a mostly white neighborhood filled with retirees, you’re most likely the youngest Betty. How this is actually an advantage, I haven’t quite figured out. The interesting thing is you go to school with plenty of other children born from Asian immigrants, and realize two or three other Chinese/Taiwanese girls in your grade are also named Betty. You wonder about the rest of Southern California and giggle at the thought that there could comically be an army of Chinese Bettys, all in their twenties, all named in the same careless way by well-intentioned parents. Parents who emigrated from Taipei or Kaoshiung or Taichung around the same time your parents did, and who must also have met similarly warm Bettys if not the same damn Betty around the same time. Those Bettys! That Betty. She made such an impression.
This leads 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.”
We ended up taking more than a few classes together each year, and for some reason I came off to this Other Betty as someone who really knew her shit. The reason may have been that she studied very hard and did not so well while I studied pretty much never and did quite well (All my high school hubris is coming out now, but this excludes classes that involved math and science- so roughly half. Other Betty and I did poorly together in those).
During sophomore year, she asked for my phone number after a history class.
“Can I call you if I need help with the assignment?”
“Sure,” I said, not really expecting her to call. We Bettys are supposed to be a self-reliant sort.
But she called that very night. It was a most irritating conversations:
At this Betty’s house, the telephone rings. Betty picks up:
Other Betty: Hi Betty.
Betty recognizes the voice, sighs heavily: Oh hi.
Other Betty: It’s Betty.
Betty: I know, Betty.
They discuss the assignment. Other Betty doesn’t really get it, but Betty explains as clearly and slowly as possible. Other Betty seems kind of dense. This is bad publicity for all Bettys. For instance, Other Betty cuts her own bangs, but probably shouldn’t because her bangs are always crooked. Or at least she should use a ruler. But finally, it seems as though Other Betty is getting close to 15% comprehension.
Other Betty: Okay…I think I get it. Thank you Betty. Can I call you again later, if I have more questions?
Betty mildly exasperated: Sure Betty, no problem.
Other Betty: Thanks Betty. Okay, bye Betty.
Betty: Bye Betty.
Betty hangs up, never wanting to say or hear her own name again.
In the years since high school graduation, I’ve toyed with the idea of changing my name or, when I write a book, taking a pen name. Names matter. A lot. 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). It’s hard to imagine someone saying, “I can’t wait for Shad Gregory Moss’s next rap album.”
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, my brother’s name.
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, make snap judgments about people’s names. Everyone knows a Larry that looks like, well, a Larry. (My cousin, for instance), or perhaps a slob named Bob. Everyone knows a princess-y type named Priscilla or Tiffany. And if your Larry or Bob, Tiffany or Priscilla don’t match their perceived personas, then they’re nominal outliers. I’m not a Betty. But I’m Betty. But what is the “type” I’m thinking of? And yet they seem know what I’m asking.
Thoughtfully, they almost always say, “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 going to name you Jane,” my mother told me once.
“Jane!” I echoed, “Why not Jane?” So simple yet elegant. A writer’s name. 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. To not laugh so much like a braying donkey or eat an entire Chipotle Burrito. A Tiffany would never do that.
“It could have been a lot worse. Your name could have been ‘Flower’, as your Grandpa wanted me to name you, and you would have turned out just as well.”
I snorted. Flower Ho! Who knew my grandpa, he of the three-piece suits and oiled-hair and old Shanghai glamour had such spectacularly tacky taste? I paused for a minute, imagining life as a girl named “Flower” and then as a young aspiring writer named “Flower”. Would Flower Ho sell any books? On Chinese gardens, perhaps. It didn’t matter. My mother had the good sense to distinguish between tacky and what, despite not being from America, felt confident and timeless.
Suddenly, that stranger Betty seemed to me an angel from heaven.