Sunday, January 11, 2009


I was a banana and I didn't know it. This realization came to me when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was blithely living my life full of the usual pre-teen angst, pre-pubescent teen-idol crushes and general fuzzy-headedness of that age.For the most part, I thought I was just like my friends. But I wasn't.

I wrote the above for a prompt at First 50 Words. It got me thinking about how long it took me to realize my own banana-ness.

Banana: An Asian person who acts like they are white. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I had never heard banana used this way until I was in university where, thankfully, I was exposed to a much broader experience. I was raised in a WASP community. In my graduating class of approximately five hundred, fewer than a dozen were non-white. I can probably name them now: Ellen, Nirmal, Linda, Bob, Bev, Doug, Ed, Chuck, Sonny, and another Ellen.

I always knew something was off – the snickered racial slurs, the outright snubbing by certain people, the condescension, surprise at my non-mathematical mind. But I could never quite figure it out. I never heard other non-white students speak of similar experiences. Mostly, I thought it was a flaw in myself. I naively felt I was like everyone else. I liked the same music, the same movies; I had the same crushes on the same teen idols of the day; I even dressed the same.

What I didn't realize was that I was viewing myself from the inside out and everyone else was looking at me from the outside in. What they saw was a little Asian girl. And of course, that's what they reacted to first.

It was one of those defining aha! moments when I heard the word banana used to describe Asians. I didn't think of the negative connotation – i.e. that I was denying my Asian-ness and pretending or acting white. It was more about validation of why I felt the way I did and how others reacted to me.

Later on, I thought about the negative implications of the term and, at first, hated it, then realized it was yet another misinterpretation of the inner me. My grandparents had instilled in me a tremendous pride of my heritage that a slangy definer wasn't about to change.

Over the years, I've come to terms with the fact that others, both Asian and non-Asian, are often startled by what they discover if they bother to scratch the surface.

But this holds true for anybody. It's a case of the old saying, "Don't judge a book by it's cover."



Martin said...

Good post. And it's true what you say about being surpised when you scratch the surface. And often it's the people who bother to do some scratching who end up being your friends.

I was unfamiliar with the term banana in this particular context, so I read that opening paragraph with an actual banana in mind. It works that way, too.


Kay Dennison said...

Interesting post! I'd heard the term 'oreo cookie" for blacks who "acted white" as the saying went back in the day but never 'banana'. I used to get called names for being too tall, too skinny, and too nerdy, so I wasn't throwing stones at others. And yeah, it hurts a lot no matter what the reason. There's a part of me that will never forgive such insensitivity and hatefulness.

Joy said...

This is the first I've heard of that banana label. Interesting post which shows what Martin said about those who bother to scratch the surface. That's what makes the difference - getting to know someone else as a person instead of as a stereotype.

Mine happens when I'm out of the South and my IQ drops about 20 points because of my Southern accent. Unless others have known more than our stereotypes, they automatically think I'm an ignorant racist evangelical Republican for all the wrong reasons.

So many American writers are from the South, and most American music originated here, too. (blues, R&B, country, New Orleans jazz, folk, Dixieland, rock 'n roll)

ell said...

Martin, it might be rather fun to continue the story as an actual banana. :)

Kay, I've heard the term oreo used similarly and have the same reaction as when I hear the banana term: i.e. how does one act "not" white if you've grown up surrounded by the white majority and that is your only frame of reference?

Joy, you'd be surprised at how many times I've used you as an example of intelligent, open and free-minded Southerners. :-)

Berry Blog said...

Oh my this is just wonderful writing with some marvelous insights..especially how you viewed yourself not realizing how others viewed you.I didn't know about the banana reference either. Not complimentary perhaps but an excellent metaphor for the insights you bring up.
Your "stuff" is always captivating. I look forward to more.
xoxo charlie