Friday, March 23, 2007

Whitewashed bananas

A friend of mine and I had a conversation about two schoolmates of ours. Both of them are Asian American. At some point, Person number 1 ended up jokingly referring to person number 2 as a "banana." Person number 2 reacted pretty badly to this and was quite offended.

This led to a conversation about "bananas" or "twinkies" or what have you. I myself have also been guilty of calling people bananas, and thereby seriously offending them. In talking to this friend of mine, I realized that I could easily be identified as a banana. I'm an Asian American who doesn't speak my "native tongue."

It made me realize that actually, not being able to speak an Asian language makes bananas (myself included) more insecure than our bilingual compatriots. Being able to speak your mother tongue lends you authenticity, both to white people, and also to your family or your community. It seems to me that being in possession of two languages anchors your identity more concretely in both spheres, country of ancestry and country of birth, and thus you are, as another acquaintance of mine said recently, a true transnational.

As an Asian American, in possession of an Asian appearance, there are some parts of your "culture" that remain inaccessible to you if you don't speak another language. It is also pretty central to the performance of your ethnic identity. If I was home right now, I would totally dig out Rey Chow's The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and quote it, but alas it's at home in America.

That said, I think most languageless bananas feel more insecure in their identity, I would hazard a guess, than those who are bilingual. And therefore feel the need to present or perform their identity more aggressively (that would be me) or to deny it entirely or even feel resentful or ashamed about it.


exangelena said...

Ugh, I really hate calling people "oreos" or "twinkies". First of all, if you say that someone "acts" white, then you're saying that certain behaviors or attributes are white or nonwhite (which isn't true!). Second of all, you're telling someone that they can and cannot act a certain way based on their race.
A pet peeve of mine is when white liberals call Alan Keyes an oreo or Michelle Malkin a banana. Even though I strongly disagree with both of those people, it's pretty racist for a white person to tell them what they should think about politics or race. Also, even if they have come to conclusions that white liberals disagree with, that doesn't erase the fact that they've come to those conclusions from their experiences as a nonwhite person.
I always felt more pressure to act "Asian" at a college that's 30% Asian versus a high school that was probably 10-15% Asian. In high school, people didn't have as much of an idea what their Asian neighbor or classmate should act like, but in college, there are huge groups of Asians acting a certain way, setting up a "paradigm" of what Asians should act like.

mark said...

The House of Flying Bananas might amuse you.

little light said...

Yeah, nail-head-bang, on this one. I've never managed to quite tack down this dynamic and stare at it, and you've just got it.

Of course, I'm a coconut.

Still. It always gets me, not speaking mother tongues. The fact that, if I visited my extended family, I wouldn't be able to speak to them just drives me crazy, and you're right on--there's this desperate need to establish authenticity and roots, and the languagelessness is a big part of it. I remember the first time another Filipina-American taught me a couple of words of Tagalog, and the combination of thrill and embarrassment was really quite something.

She ended up giving me a vial of sand from the Old Country. I still keep it somewhere prominent, even though I've never been "back."

lovelesscynic said...

The language thing was such a huge hangup for me when I was younger. I think it's sort of the ultimate expression of your lack of authenticity, you don't even have any words to speak.

The ones I do know, I really tend to cling to rather ferociously.

The vial of sand is pretty interesting and the idea of Home. Because you feel like it is your Home, even if it's not your home.