Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 18, 1997.
Because both my parents came from China, I took Chinese. But I cannot read or write Chinese and barely speak it. I love my North American citizenship. I don’t mind being called a “banana,” yellow on the outside and white inside. I’m proud I’m a banana.
After all, in Canada and the United States, native Indians are "apples" (red outside, white inside); blacks are "Oreo cookies" (black and white); and Chinese are "bananas." These metaphors assume, both rightly and wrongly, that the culture here has been primarily anglo-white. Cultural history made me a banana.
History: My father and mother arrived separately to the B.C. coast in the early part of the century. They came as unwanted "aliens." Better to be an alien here than to be dead of starvation in China. But after the Chinese Exclusion laws were passed in North America (late 1800s, early 1900s), no Chinese immigrants were granted citizenship in either Canada or the United States.
Like those Old China village men from Toi San who, in the 1850s, laid down cliff-edge train tracks through the Rockies and the Sierras, or like those first women who came as mail-order wives or concubines and who as bond-slaves were turned into cheaper labourers or even prostitutes – like many of those men and women, my father and mother survived ugly, unjust times. In 1917, two hours after he got off the boat from Hong Kong, my father was called “chink” and told to go back to China. “Chink” is a hateful racist term, stereotyping the shape of Asian eyes: “a chink in the armour,” an undesirable slit. For the Elders, the past was humiliating. Eventually, the Second World War changed hostile attitudes toward the Chinese.
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During the war, Chinese men volunteered and lost their lives as members of the American and Canadian military. When hostilities ended, many more were proudly in uniform waiting to go overseas. Record Chinatown dollars were raised to buy War Bonds. After 1945, challenged by such money and ultimate sacrifices, the Exclusion laws in both Canada and the U.S. were revoked. Chinatown residents claimed their citizenship and sent for their families.
By 1949, after the Communists took over China, those of us who arrived here as young children, or were born here, stayed. No longer “aliens,” we became legal citizens of North America. Many of us also became “bananas.”
Historically, "banana" is not a racist term. Although it clumsily stereotypes many of the children and grandchildren of the Old Chinatowns, the term actually follows the old Chinese tendency to assign endearing nicknames to replace formal names, semicomic names to keep one humble. Thus, "banana" describes the generations who assimilated so well into North American life.
In fact, our families encouraged members of my generation in the 1950s and sixties to “get ahead,” to get an English education, to get a job with good pay and prestige. “Don’t work like me,” Chinatown parents said. “Work in an office!” The lao wah-kiu (the Chinatown old-timers) also warned, “Never forget – you still be Chinese!”
None of us ever forgot. The mirror never lied.
Many Chinatown teenagers felt we didn't quite belong in any one world. We looked Chinese, but thought and behaved North American. Impatient Chinatown parents wanted the best of both worlds for us, but they bluntly labelled their children and grandchildren "juk-sing" or even "mo no." Not that we were totally "shallow bamboo butt-ends" or entirely "no brain," but we had less and less understanding of Old China traditions, and less and less interest in their village histories. Father used to say we lacked Taoist ritual, Taoist manners. We were, he said, "mo li."
This was true. Chinatown's younger brains, like everyone else's of whatever race, were being colonized by "white-bread" U.S. family television programs. We began to feel Chinese home life was inferior. We co-operated with English-language magazines that showed us how to act and what to buy. Seductive Hollywood movies made some of us secretly weep that we did not have movie-star faces. American music made Chinese music sound like noise.
By the 1970s and eighties, many of us had consciously or unconsciously distanced ourselves from our Chinatown histories. We became bananas.
Finally, for me, in my 40s and 50s, with the death first of my mother, then my father, I realized I did not belong anywhere unless I could understand the past. I needed to find the foundation of my Chinese-ness. I needed roots.
I spent my college holidays researching the past. I read Chinatown oral histories, located documents, searched out early articles. Those early citizens came back to life for me. Their long toil and blood sacrifices, the proud record of their patient, legal challenges, gave us all our present rights as citizens. Canadian and American Chinatowns set aside their family tongue differences and encouraged each other to fight injustice. There were no borders. “After all,” they affirmed, “Daaih ga tohng yahn . . .We are all Chinese!”
In my book, The Jade Peony, I tried to recreate this past, to explore the beginnings of the conflicts trapped within myself, the struggle between being Chinese and being North American. I discovered a truth: these "between world" struggles are universal.
In every human being, there is “the Other” – something that makes each of us feel how different we are to everyone else, even to family members. Yet, ironically, we are all the same, wanting the same security and happiness. I know this now.
I think the early Chinese pioneers actually started "going bananas" from the moment they first settled upon the West Coast. They had no choice. They adapted. They initiated assimilation. If they had not, they and their family would have starved to death. I might even suggest that all surviving Chinatown citizens eventually became bananas. Only some, of course, were more ripe than others.
That's why I'm proudly a banana: I accept the paradox of being both Chinese and not Chinese.
Now at last, whenever I look in the mirror or hear ghost voices shouting, "You still Chinese!" I smile.
I know another truth: In immigrant North America, we are all Chinese.
Wayson Choy was born in British Columbia in 1939. His first novel, The Jade Peony, was about Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Depression and Second World War. The book won the 1995 Trillium Award and the 1995 Vancouver City Book Award.
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