That Betty

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.”

In the 80’s people were not dressing very well, but they were advancing in naming trends, gracing their delicate baby daughters with sweet, ultra-feminine names that melodiously rolled off the tongue: Stephanie, Tiffany, Amy, Brittany, Emily, Jaime, Melanie – names that belonged to young, sparkling princesses, not the dowdy dullard my parents, utterly oblivious to the name’s original Elizabeth, dropped upon me. To hate one’s name comes close, very 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, who I’m sure is a woolly mammoth in a Scandinavian comic strip. I shudder to think of all the other women they might have met – God help my self esteem if they’d met an 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. 

Hello, my name is Betty. I am a twenty-seven year old, Chinese-American Betty. My mother named me after a mystery woman who is now in her seventies. Or dead, with our shared name etched upon her gravestone.  
I get a lot of senior-citizen mail, because the junkmail 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. Oddly however, I do get a free subscription of Essence, but that’s a more serious mystery).
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 bad thing is you go to school with a handful of other Asians 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, unsurprisingly, also emigrated from Taipei or Kaoshiung or Taichung around the same time your parents did, and who must also have met the same damn Betty around the same damn time. That Betty. She made such an impression.

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). 

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 (Yeah, all my high school hubris is coming out now, but this excludes classes that involved numbers and words like “gametes” and “mitochondrial.” Other Betty and I did poorly together in those).

Once, during sophomore year, she asked for my phone number. 

“Can I call you if I need help with the assignment?” 
“Sure,” I said, not really expecting her to call. 
But she did call, that very night and it was one of the most irritating and unforgettable conversations I’ve ever had: 
At Betty Ho’s house, the telephone rings. Betty picks up:
Betty Ho: Hello?
Other Betty: Hi Betty.
Betty Ho recognizing the voice, sighs heavily: Oh hi. 
Other Betty: It’s Betty. 
Betty Ho: I know, Betty. 
They discuss the assignment. Other Betty doesn’t really get it, but Betty Ho explains as clearly and slowly as possible. Other Betty is kind of dense. She cuts her own bangs, but probably shouldn’t. Or 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 Ho mildly exasperated but controlling it: Sure Betty, no problem. 
Other Betty: Thanks Betty. Okay, bye Betty. 
Betty Ho: Bye Betty. 
Betty Ho hangs up, never wanting to say her own name again. 

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. 


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