A Reader Response to Terry Woo’s Banana Boys by Kherta Sherif Mohamed

A Reader Response to Terry Woo’s Banana Boys by Kherta Sherif Mohamed

“In seeing them, I will be seeing myself.” (Aoki, 1979, p. 348)

According to Giroux (1997), “education works best when those experiences that shape and penetrate one’s lived reality are jolted, unsettled, and made the object of analysis” (p. 13). He remarks, “Thinking back to my experience of moving through the contested terrains of race, gender and class, it is clear to me that power is never exerted only through economic control, but also through what might be called a form of cultural pedagogy” (p. 13). Having just read Terry Woo’s novel Banana Boys I wonder about the numerous forms of power and the politics of identity that intertwine to create the social and cultural realities in which the Banana Boys live. What forms of cultural pedagogy do the Banana Boys experience as they try to negotiate between worlds of difference; of what it means to be a “juk sing” in a world that is defined by the polarity of its internal and external characterizations. The Banana Boys are not quite Chinese and not quite Canadian, and as such, are prime examples of what it means to be ‘second generation’ anything in Canada. Consequently, the Banana Boys inhabit a “third space” (Aoki, 1979), seeing the world through a “third eye” with which they interpret themselves and the world around them. It is through this experience of being stuck in the “in-betweeness” of cultural hybridity that the Banana Boys come to view race as more than merely a noun that “we use to narrate ourselves,” but rather a verb which governs how we “interact and perform in the midst of the “other”” (Giroux, 1997, p. 7).

As the story unfolds, we meet the characters: Luke, a music fiend and Disc Jockey with a soft spot for Doc Martens and milk crates; Dave, a computer programmer and pessimist, with a love of good Canadian beer; Mike, a grad student who still lives with his parents with dreams of becoming a writer, but who is too afraid to take risks; and Sheldon, the ultimate dependable nice guy. Narrated in the voice of Rick’s younger sister Shirley, we find out that the Boys have gathered at Rick’s funeral, a former Banana Boy turned Hong Kong FOB, who in his quest to ‘take over the world’ has overdosed on antidepressant pills and alcohol. Why Rick has committed suicide remains a mystery for much of the book, and it is only through unravelling their individual histories that we are able to understand the nature of their present circumstances. As Giroux (1997) states, one’s relationship to the present is to be experienced “from the inside, as part of an ongoing dialogue between oneself, the past, and the emergence of a present that dispenses with the obligation to remember” (p. 3).

As I flip through the pages of the book, I am reminded not of my own experience as a child of a hybrid culture, but of the experiences of a classmate I met in high school. I met Jason in the ninth grade. The quintessential Banana Boy, he was nothing like the typical “Asian boy” that media and cultural stereotypes said he should be. He was a skateboarder, who smoked weed, didn’t do well in school, and skipped class regularly. Jason either sat in the desk in front of me, behind me, or beside me for our entire high school careers. Without fail, he would begin each day in the same way. Jason would walk into class 5 minutes late. He would be lectured by the teacher for not having a late slip, told to “pull his pants up and take off his hat”. He would make his way to his seat, notebook and skateboard in hand, only to realize that he hadn’t brought the right books to class. Too tired to be bothered, he would tap me on the shoulder and ask: “Yo, can I borrow another pen?” I knew full well I’d never see that pen again but I gave it to him anyway.

As an outsider looking in on Jason’s life, the peculiarities were obvious. While he never explicitly talked about race, I did notice that almost all his friends were non-Asian. It wasn’t something I really paid attention to – he was a skateboarder after all, and in my high school, it just so happened that all the skateboarders were white. The years passed, and in my eyes, nothing seemed to change with Jason. He still showed up late to class, and still “borrowed” my pens until I had none left to give. I never read anything into Jason’s disengagement with school until one day he decided to do his sociology presentation on Marijuana. Our initial reaction to his choice of topic was disbelief. We were sure the teacher would fail him, or at the very least force him to change his topic. But she didn’t. She let him continue, and what he said completely transformed the way I, and many others looked at him. Jason told us of how his parents emigrated from China in search of a better life. Of how he was born in Canada, and felt “Canadian,” yet was ashamed of his Chinese roots. He told us of how he struggled to keep up with is parents’ aspirations for him. Not being the typical “Chinese genius child,” Jason felt he let his parents down. He told us of how his mother cried when she first found out he was smoking pot with his friends, and of how he felt bad to see her cry, but that she just didn’t understand what it was like for a “kid like him”. Jason’s presentation was more of a confession than anything else. It was a release in which he let us in on a secret he had been keeping for the 4 years we knew him – it wasn’t “all good” after all.

Giroux (1997) explains that “identities are always in transit: they mutate, change, and often become complicated as a result of chance encounters, traumatic events, or unexpected collisions” (p. 9). It was only through the experience of listening to Jason’s presentation on Marijuana that I was able to see past the stereotypes of the juk sing he seemed to represent. I realized that he was indeed a product of circumstances not that different from my own. While the Banana Boys found their escape in alcohol, Jason found his in skateboarding. In negotiating terrains of difference, both the Banana Boys and Jason are examples of the fragile nature of identity and belonging. If education is to be relevant in an age where nothing, including the identities of our students are set in stone, in what ways can our pedagogical praxis act to ensure that the educational experiences of our students are meaningful and productive? What Terry Woo does so successfully in his novel is linking the “cultural text to the institutional contexts in which it is read” (Giroux, 1997, p. 14). As an educational practice, “performative interpretation” comes to life in “how we understand and come to know [that] our selves cannot be separated from how we are represented” (Giroux, 1997, p. 14). As Stuart Hall (1997) explains, “meaning is produced whenever we express ourselves in, make use of, consume or appropriate cultural ‘things’; that is when we incorporate them in different ways into the everyday rituals and practices of daily life … [giving] them value or significance” (p.3-4). Likewise, the narratives we weave and the stories we tell speak truth to our lived experiences. These stories validate our feelings and in many ways, afford us the time and space to engage in critical self-analysis of not only our selves, but also of the world around us.

This brings me back to Jason. I wonder what Jason’s response to Woo’s text might have been; of how his educational experiences might have changed if he had a book to call his own, a book that breathed life to his experiences as a mixed up Canadian hybrid kid. Woo’s book also brings up many pedagogical questions for the teacher in each of us. What does it really mean to be teaching for change? What does it mean to acknowledge the “relationship between knowing and ignorance, and the relationship between power and knowledge as mediated by that which is not named, spoken, or represented” (Giroux, 1997, p. 61). To question this, is to attempt to understand as Pierre Bourdieu states, “what it means to have an academic mind – how such is created – and at the same time what was lost in acquiring it” (cited in Giroux, 1997, p. viii). It is for students of theory to find balance in praxis; for teachers to realize that “the politics of meaning cannot be separated from the real world” (p. 59). And for students like Jason to realize that “there’s a place for us out there. I know it. And if there isn’t, we’ll damn well make one” (Woo, 2000, preface)

References

Aoki, T.T. (1979). Reflections of a Japanese Canadian teacher experiencing ethnicity. In W. Pinar & R. Irwin (Eds.) (2005). Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 333–348

Hall, S. (1997). The work of representation. In Hall, S. (Eds.), Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices (p. 1-74). London: Sage.

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Channel Surfing: Race talk and the destruction of the today’s youth. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Woo. T. (2000). Banana Boys. Toronto: River Bank Press.