What's in a (Middle) Name? Try Everything.

After 15 years, my lack of a middle name became the symbol of everything that was wrong with me.

Dec 20, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

At 15, I decided to give myself a new name. A middle name. This sounds much easier and more insignificant than it actually was. Because middle names don’t matter, right? (Just ask President Barack Hussein Obama.)

Some people with backgrounds like mine get a Chinese name as a middle name at birth. I was given a Chinese name, and my family called me by that name in private, but never made it official.

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Officially, my parents named me “Jeniffer Wang.” A nurse took it upon herself to change the spelling to “Jennifer” before my birth certificate was printed, believing, I imagine, that my immigrant parents didn’t know any better. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. I was named after Ali MacGraw’s character in Love Story, though they never called me Jenny.

The other name my parents considered was “Daisy.” I’ve always pictured life as “Daisy Wang” to be filled with binge drinking, poor relationship choices and tragic consequences. The name eventually proved useful. My parents gave it to the yellow Labrador Retriever we got when I was 12. When Daisy died some years later, my father, a scientist, actually wrote her an elegy.

After 15 years, my lack of a middle name became the symbol of everything that was wrong with me.

I was born in Texas, spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Texas -- when we weren’t bouncing around because of my parents’ green card-troubles -- and yet I was unlike my peers in Texas in so many ways.

I wasn’t white. My family wasn’t conservative. We didn’t go to church except on the rarest of occasions, what with my father being atheist and my mother being what I like to call “haphazard Catholic.” (I fixed that by signing up for 5 years of Southern Baptist youth group -- voluntarily.)

My hair was black, straight, and required an inordinate amount of effort to look like the other girls’ -- that is to say, big.

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My entire sophomore year of high school I slept in curlers, the plastic, scalp-poking bits interrupting my sleep all night long. I already had a perm, but it wasn’t enough. My eyes were small and people were unabashed in asking me questions about them like, “Do you have any peripheral vision with those things?” 

Everyone I knew had a middle name. And they took it for granted. They thought about their middle names as much as they thought about, say, their sense of belonging, their roots, their history, which is to say, not at all.

I, too, had history -- speaking of names, somewhere in southern China, in my father’s ancestral village, there’s a book with the names of 26 generations of “Wangs” written in it, not including the names of girl children, of course -- but my history didn’t mesh with my adolescent so-called life. It was like the stuff in my parents’ pantry -- it was foreign, it smelled funny, and you had to keep the door closed on it or it would taint the air in the entire house.

So at 15, with a driver’s license in my sights -- which meant I would soon possess an official document printed with my official name -- I set out to christen myself anew. I’d fantasized about middle names long before that, so I thought it would be easy.

For years, I’d sandwiched names of my BFFs in between “Jennifer” and “Wang” to see how they looked and sounded. Names like Carolyn, Julie and Gretchen. 

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For a while, I’d fancied the name “Frances,” until I found myself in newspaper class with a Frances Wang, who lorded over me the fact that she was in the 8th grade and I only in the 7th. I’d tried on the names of girls who were universally beloved -- Emily, Laura, Beth -- girls who’d never be called “snake eyes,” “chink,” or told to “go back to ‘Nam.”

Still by the time my 16th birthday came around, I’d failed to settle on a name. I passed my driver’s test though, and received my license, which listed my full name as “Jennifer Wang.” It  looked so bare and incomplete.

After that, my quest to be nominally whole took on more urgency. Soon I’d have to turn in college applications which would ask for my middle name. And then I’d have my full name read aloud at graduation and printed on my diploma. Not to mention college. God forbid I go off to college without three names!

College was the place where I’d start over, reinventing myself into the central character of my own story. And that central character had a middle name, I was sure of it.

If you’ve ever named a child, a pet goldfish even, you may have experienced how hard it is to actually name another being. It’s a burden of power, a responsibility that has the potential to set a person on an entirely different life course (see: Daisy Wang).

After a year of toying with this power, I was exhausted. Unable to continue poring over name books and making a new name sandwich every day, I gave up and gave myself the first name I could think of, a name almost as familiar as my own.

I gave myself my mother’s name. Though, technically, it wasn’t really my mother’s name, either.

Like many Chinese immigrants of her generation, my mother adopted an “English” or “American” name when she came to the States. Like I said, she’s a "haphazard Catholic." Her mother was converted by missionaries in Taiwan and devout; my mother, not so much. But she was baptized at some point and given the name of a Catholic saint, as is customary. And that’s the name my mother took for herself when she came to Texas in the late 60s for school. Let’s say, for the sake of her privacy, that it’s “Bernadette.”

The custom of middle naming doesn’t date that far back in America. The phrase “middle name” wasn’t even recorded here until 1835. But like most great American customs, it has aspirational origins. Middle naming first became popular among British aristocracy, then trickled down to the upper classes of the British colonies in north America, and only later trickled down to the masses. Middle naming, it seems, was designed to make a person seem more important than they actually were.

So when I went off to college as “Jennifer Bernadette Wang” and not just “Jennifer Wang,” I believed I was moving up in the world. No one would ever know in my new universe that I’d been born without a middle name. No one would ever know how deficient I’d felt coming into this world, or how much time I’d spent making up for those things I felt I’d lacked.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to my own reinvention.

My freshman year of college, close to 30 Jennifers matriculated in my class. It was by far the most popular name among freshman women that year. How were we, or our classmates for that matter, supposed to distinguish one Jennifer from another?

One Jennifer renamed herself “Jef” before classes even started. The rest of us got sorted out eventually, over time becoming known by our first and last names, with “Jennifer” shortened to “Jen.” I don’t know how it happened exactly, it just did. Even if I introduced myself as Jennifer, everyone ended up calling me “Jen” or “Jen Wang.”

I stopped trying to get people to call me “Jennifer” by my sophomore year. No one else seemed to share in my belief that only you had the power to name yourself. (Except “Jef,” I suppose.) Besides, I was starting to feel like “Jen Wang.”

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Jen Wang hadn’t just had her name trimmed down, she’d cut off all of her hair, weeded out the girly Laura Ashley dresses from her closet, and thrown away her light-up makeup mirror. She wasn’t weighted down like “Jennifer.”

She didn’t need a middle name, or even a full first name, to be complete. Jen Wang was everybody and anybody -- Google it to see what I mean -- and she was also, somehow, me.

And despite the fact that I didn’t give myself that name, that it came into being out of convenience, random circumstance, and the decision-making of strangers, 20 years later, “Jen Wang” still feels like the only name I was born to have.