The plight of the ‘banana’ (Yellow on the outside. White on the inside)

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, the staff speak to you in their language and look disappointed when you can only offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’. They may offer you forks, and no doubt take note of the fact your white partner uses chopsticks a million times more deftly than you do.

When an elderly Asian person tries to communicate with the bus driver, and fails, the driver casts a meaningful look back at you over his shoulder, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When an Asian person comes up to you on the street and (presumably) tries to ask you for directions in their language, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When people at work ask if you speak any other languages, clearly hoping that you do, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When a white security guard says ‘ni hao’ to you as you walk past, and you don’t know how best to respond.

When people learn your Chinese/legal name and gush about how beautiful it is, and you don’t know how best to respond.

When you open your mouth and someone hearing you for the first time expresses surprise at your total lack of an accent, and you don’t know how best to respond.

I’ve had too many of these incidents happen too close together of late, and I’m tired of feeling apologetic all the damn time. It’s my own problem to deal with, I know; it’s not about malice, it’s about what’s going on inside me and my own identity issues.

I am Chinese by heritage, born in Malaysia, raised in New Zealand. I know more Malay words than I do Chinese, and I am pretty sure I know even more Maori words in total. English is the language we spoke at home – my parents grew up speaking different dialects – and while my dad briefly tried to teach me Mandarin once, I had neither the desire nor inclination to succeed. If it weren’t for, I suppose, external forces, I wouldn’t even care. Maybe in my dotage, like my mother, I’ll feel the urge to reconnect with my birthright and start taking Mandarin classes – but for now, it’s just not on my radar. But being non white in an overwhelmingly white industry makes me feel like I need to be some sort of ambassador or representative at times. But I’m not. I’m an impostor.

I am surrounded by white people for the vast majority of my waking hours. At work. At home. In the media I consume. Sometimes, despite the fact I see myself every day in the mirror, I think I actually forget I’m not white too.

21 thoughts on “The plight of the ‘banana’ (Yellow on the outside. White on the inside)

  • Reply The Asian Pear November 13, 2014 at 09:08

    I have somewhat of a similar but opposite experience. People are often surprised when they discover that I can speak Cantonese Chinese with only a slight accent. Mostly because I don’t look Asian (re: fat) with wavy hair. Then they ask if I was born in Hong Kong. When I tell them I’m Canadian born, they’re often flabbergasted.

  • Reply Genie November 13, 2014 at 09:54

    I speak broken Cantonese but I surprise myself when I find myself understanding Mandarin. The two languages are similar but so different.

    I always get a shock when people speak to me in Cantonese. I was born in Hong Kong but moved to NZ before I learned to speak. We spoke English at home to our parents, our parents spoke Cantonese back to us. So I can understand Cantonese, but speaking it is a struggle.

    One time, I was alone at the zoo, drawing zoo animals, minding my own business, when a little Chinese girl came up to me and asked “Do you speak Mandarin?” in Mandarin. I don’t speak Mandarin, but for some reason unknown to me, I could understand her perfectly. So I replied “No” in English and the kid gave me the dirtiest look that said YOU ARE A LIAR!!!

    When I traveled with my white husband to Beijing, everyone would expect that I could speak Mandarin. They were disgusted, even angry to find I could not.

  • Reply NorthernExposure November 13, 2014 at 10:37

    I’m an english speaking person in Quebec, and my name is spelled Marc with a “c”. I get asked why I’m not french all the time, or how come living in Quebec I don’t know more of it. C’est la vie. Move on.

  • Reply Sally November 13, 2014 at 13:04

    It’s weird to always be asked to be the ambassador. I think it’s one of my pet peeves (though I will rarely admit it) when as soon as someone figures out where I’m from, they expect a nuanced review/update of current political affairs and what I think is going to happen next. Sometimes I just want to show up, introduce myself and blend into the background not be probed about my entire life history/immigration status. When was the last time someone asked T where he was born vs. the last time you were asked? Isn’t it crazy?!

  • Reply Pauline November 13, 2014 at 14:35

    When people see you, is there no doubt you are Chinese, I mean couldn’t you be Korean or Japanese and thus not understand Chinese? Also you mention dialects, the restaurant staff will always address people say in Mandarin and expect them to understand, or do other Chinese reply “I don’t understand” in another dialect and are just being left alone?
    Here people always feel like making small talk with me because I look different, and I find it really annoying. Last time a policeman was trying to fine me, and was more interested in where I was from than hearing my plea. So when you’re in your own country, being asked “where were you born” has to be weird.

    • Reply Lisa Clark November 15, 2014 at 06:03

      That is weird but it does happen.
      I have been living in the UK for about 20 years but when I go home I get asked “where are you from?”. In the UK, I am a Kiwi and no one questions it but when I am in Auckland – it’s a different story.
      I have a bit of a mixed heritage and while visiting South Africa a few years ago, a very Afrikaans bus driver gave me a filthy look when I was unable to understand what he was asking me, having seen my name on my ticket. I just shrugged and said ‘sorry’.

    • Reply eemusings November 15, 2014 at 14:22

      Chinese are the vast vast majority of Asians here and one of the biggest ethnic groups in terms of the whole population. Koreans less so and Japanese even less so. Context.

      As another commenter mentioned, languages/dialects are different but similar, some basics prob have a lot of similarities.

  • Reply Revanche November 13, 2014 at 21:52

    Ahhh yes. Grew up in white suburbia, have always worked in a predominantly white industry … these are so familiar. My reactions vary of course, depending on my mood.

    People in America expect me to only speak English, and people in Not My Native Country expect me to speak their language when I travel there. People in My Native Country are surprised and weirded out when they hear me speak. *shrug* Indiscriminately Asian, I look and am, it turns out.

    You’re not an imposter. Just because you look a certain way doesn’t obligate you to BE a certain way. Expecting random Asian-looking people to speak your own language is about as silly as expecting any white person to naturally speak German or French or whatever. I do understand the desperation of lost tourists who grasp the sleeve of any possible hope that they might be able to communicate, based only on looks, but that’s a different thing. That’s more about them than having a stereotypical expectation imposed on you. /ramble

    • Reply Revanche November 13, 2014 at 21:53

      Oh, also fun? Having whatever-Asian insist you MUST BE their race because you look JUST LIKE their cousin.

      Dude, I look like everyone’s cousin.

    • Reply eemusings November 19, 2014 at 19:46

      I had a really great chat with a fellow banana this week. She gets super annoyed (“I just want to tell them to F*** Off”) as she sees it as mainly people wanting to practice the one phrase they know / show off how culturally aware they are. And I’ve been with whities who get riled up on my behalf when they’re with me and these things happen in their presence.

      Anyway, our chat led to a mini epiphany for me. One place to draw the line: language aside, are they treating everyone else the same?

      For example: these 2 real life situations, neither of which is okay according to this rule.

      1) I’m at the office working. Maintenance guy walks through. Doesn’t say hello to anyone at all … but when he passes me? Busts out a ni hao.

      2) I’m walking down the street. There’s a security guard who’s standing OUTSIDE the entrance of the bank coming up ahead of me. He’s not greeting anyone going past on the street (why would he? Maybe if they were going INTO the bank, but not if they’re walking past, since it’s rush hour and everyone is heading to the bus or train). But as I go past? Busts out a ni hao.

      It’s intrusive, and rude. If you’re greeting all customers who enter a retail store, and ‘ni hao’ the Asian ones, then maybe that’s more of a grey area and up for debate as to whether that’s cool. But the above examples? Nope.

  • Reply Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank November 13, 2014 at 22:29

    You may sometimes embrace the experience, like being helpful is really good. The feeling that you have helped someone is really something I always look forward to. Try it and try not to shrug and say sorry.

  • Reply Taylor Lee November 14, 2014 at 03:20

    I went to a very monochromatic white elementary school and it wasn’t until middle school that I even realized that I am not white (but then after that I was reminded of the fact constantly). I get stopped on the street by Chinese and Korean and Spanish-speakers and I feel so dumb not being able to help them.

    It’s weird because all my friends consider me to be “white” insofar as I’m very much American-born and raised but at the same time there’s the occasional cultural difference where I feel like maybe I am the “other”. I don’t know, not really much I can say other than it’s weird and I can relate.

  • Reply SP November 14, 2014 at 11:26

    I grew up in the whitest of white areas in the USA. I’m also white, so no big deal there. But it was only once i got older and moved away that I realized that… I don’t know how to put it. I realized that people tended to group socially by race for whatever reason. In high school and below, I had friends of mixed race or other races, and never considered that they might feel different, or feel like they looked different that pop culture. I honestly didn’t see the differences, at all. I didn’t realize that their parents probably cooked different sorts of food at home, or even that they might speak different languages. I stuck my foot in my mouth a few times before I became aware of things and a bit more mature!

  • Reply Two Degrees November 15, 2014 at 19:10

    I’m just embarrassed about my terrible accent when I speak Cantonese, especially considering I was born in Hong Kong.

    When you do decide to learn Mandarin, consider taking a Pimsleur course. It worked for me. I could not pick up Mandarin for the longest time, but the pace and the way it’s set up helped me hear it. I only started last year at the age of 30.

    • Reply Two Degrees November 15, 2014 at 19:12

      BTW, sometimes I look in the mirror and am surprised I’m not white too! My boyfriend laughed at that when I told him. Glad to know I’m not the only one.

  • Reply Manda | musicalpoem November 16, 2014 at 02:18

    In the States I’m told I look more Asian; in Asia I’m told I look more white. If I’m with Western friends in China, we get approached in English; If I’m on my own, I get approached in Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese). There’s the assumption that I know the language when I’m in China (and I do) and then people fall over sideways when learning I speak more than just English when I’m in western countries (but that’s probably a bigger issue with America’s lack of foreign language instruction). Society is weird.

  • Reply Sense November 16, 2014 at 04:39

    If it helps, no one ever ever ever mistakes me for a Kiwi, either, even before I speak, and I am of the Caucasian persuasion (i.e., white). Apparently I look super-German (or Finnish or Swedish) to people in NZ. NO SPRECHEN SIE DEUTSCHE

    I think it partly has to do with how much of the population (esp. in Central City, where I live and work) is NOT from NZ. They just assume. I know I do…a good 90% of people I interact with or meet in NZ are foreigners, including at work. Even after 6+ years, I actually barely know any Kiwis at all.

    Being foreign myself, I expect the assumptions and questions and don’t get offended, but I’d imagine that they would raise my ire if I were born and bred here.

    I don’t get asked anything in the US. Of course.

  • Reply Steve November 16, 2014 at 14:39

    I still deal with an identity crisis, but not as much as I used to growing up. Korean born, raised in Canada, English skills on par or superior to a “Canadian” with some ability to talk very basic Korean (surprisingly with no accent I’m told). It’s a strange place to be a mutt when the world still expects you to fit some shoe hole, although I must say it’s getting better.

  • Reply Tre November 22, 2014 at 02:53

    It’s a hard call to make as a parent. We chose to speak only English at home and not teach our children my husband’s native language. He didn’t want them to speak with an accent like he does. Sometimes I wish they had learned both languages. They can’t communicate with their grandmother because she doesn’t speak English.

  • Reply Michelle November 22, 2014 at 03:57

    I found this post so interesting because at the heart of it is the idea that there are many experiences within each culture. What I mean is people are quick to think that because you are: black, white, asian, etc that you will have the same life experience that that they’ve had-that’s incorrect. We all walk this earth differently. I am black, but I live in a very white state in the United States. I snowboard, camp, swim, travel, etc things that unless you’re watching Scandal (or President Obama’s family) you might not think black people do. I do not feel “white” on the inside. But I do feel like what I am: a black person who has live MY life and not a stereotypical life on t.v. I also get pulled into the ambassador role-but, I embrace the idea of changing perceptions in a positive way and creating dialogue. Also, I like leaving a conversation and thinking that I’ve helped someone have an intellectual awakening.

    However, there are those days when I wish people would just let me do my thing and I actually will tell people “I’m not up for this type of conversation/interaction today. Think what you will. Have a great day.” And keep on moving. Sometimes you just have to let it go or else you’ll always be pissed off.

  • Reply Funny about Money November 28, 2014 at 07:21

    What an interesting post!

    My college roommate was second-generation Chinese. Her father had come to the US in his late teens or early 20s, leaving his much younger wife behind. He managed to buy tracts of what must have been thought as nearly worthless acreage outside of Tucson, Arizona. He turned it into thriving farmland and a few years later sent for his wife, who by then was about 16 or 17.

    Roommate — Margaret — used to call herself “Fake Chinese.” People who were born in China were “GC’s: Genuine Chinese.” And she knew a lot of both, because there was a good-sized Chinese community in and around Tucson. Her mom didn’t speak English, and so Margaret was fully bilingual. Both parents must have been ambitious for the kids — Margaret’s older sister grew up to become a nuclear physicist; I think the brother was a doctor. Even though she made a joke of the cultural disjunct, I believe she struggled with it. Her family came from northern China, and her boyfriend, Fred, came from the south. They were very much in love and wanted to marry, but her parents were having none of it BECAUSE Fred’s skin was much darker than theirs. Apparently that kind of discrimination is not unique to European types.

    Many years later, my son, for reasons unknown, developed a proclivity for Asian friends. Almost all his friends in high-school and college were Chinese, Chinese-American, or Korean. It wasn’t hard to discern the difficulties the Chinese-American kids were dealing with, especially if their families were very wealthy and the young people could get their hands on just about anything they pleased. They were NICE kids, in that they were fundamentally decent human beings…but sometimes they could really be wild young pups! 😀

    It must go the other way for the first generation, too. One of my clients, a full professor of mathematics, laughs (in an indulgent way) at the way his daughters speak Chinese…but in private he confesses to feeling a little embarrassed at their American accent when he takes them back to China.

    It’s hard for us one-culture types to imagine what it must feel like to walk a line between two worlds all your life!

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