Potassium oozing out of the pores: A reader response commentary of Terry Woo’s novel by Patrick Chan

Potassium oozing out of the pores: A reader response commentary of Terry Woo’s novel by Patrick Chan

As a child, I didn’t spend my Saturday mornings enjoying Saturday morning cartoons. Instead, I attended Chinese school. Children from Hong Kong or China—also commonly known as FOBs—as well as Canadian Born Chinese children—or CBCs—attended this school. On the first day of class, most teachers would ask who was born in Hong Kong or China. And once identified, those kids were then asked to sit on one side of the room. The rest were relegated to the other side. By doing this, the teacher divided the class into two social, ethnic, groups. In Woo’s book, Mike states that Bananas stick together and that “together or individually, there always seemed to be this weird bond between the banana boys. As contorted and split and mixed up as they got, all the parts still joined up somehow” (Woo, 1999, p.11). Indeed, there is some truth in this statement as we were always labelled and stuck together at first involuntarily and later, voluntarily. In my Chinese school, the first group, which was referred to as Group A, consisted of the FOBs. The teacher assumed these students were capable of reading and writing the Chinese language. The second group, Group B, consisted of the CBCs, who the teacher assumed could not necessarily read and write Chinese comfortably.

I suppose Group B was similar or the equivalent of a remedial class for ESL learners. Most teachers gave us more time on assignments and were more lenient in marking these assignments because of our cultural performance whiteness. Derrida (1994) alludes to the idea that people interpret or create labels, such as the labels, Group A and Group B, and expects others who adhere to these labels to perform them accordingly (as cited in Giroux, 1998). Perhaps my Chinese school teachers interpreted the label of Chinese or Chinese-Canadian as Group A and Group B and expected those of us in Group B to perform according to the set expectations. In turn, the teacher usually stressed the basics and kept repeating the same things we were taught five years prior. Essentially, for the fourteen or fifteen years I attended Chinese school, those who were in Group B constantly felt they had to somehow reach the potential of those in Group A. The fact was that I could already speak Cantonese prior to attending that school. I was also able to read and write the traditional Chinese script fairly well. Nonetheless, they still grouped me as a CBC and assumed I little to none working knowledge of the Cantonese language. One year I was asked by my teachers to put on an elaborate presentation about Chinese New Year and what we did to celebrate. So funny enough, I was labelled Chinese within that cultural context.

So, what am I? Am I Chinese? Canadian? Neither? I am a banana. Like Sheldon, Mike, Luke, Dave and Rick, I am a second-generation Canadian –a Chinese mid-twenties male. I too have parents who arrived in Canada as immigrants. I also speak, what I like to refer to as “Chinglish”—not quite Chinese and not quite English. Like them, growing up, friends have called me Twinkie, 竹升 (jook sing), white rice, CBC and banana.

Even through a banana looks the part, he or she is not necessarily fully Chinese. Furthermore, even though a banana may act the part, he or she is not necessarily fully Canadian. So, given the context of a CBC’s full identity and racial ties, it is important to note that the expectation to perform representations that are linked to a either the Chinese or the Canadian identity is simply ludicrous. While I do have epicanthic folds on my eyelids and my skin is somewhat yellowier in comparison to many of my peers and colleagues, I enjoy a beer—even though I cannot drink more than a couple before I get totally wasted—and the popular “eggs and bacon” breakfast. As well, even though I do not necessarily speak with a distinct accent, I enjoy playing mah-jong and also, like the banana boys, eat 糜 (jook) for breakfast as well. And like the school teachers, many members of the larger Chinese community seem to be shocked by the fact I can actually speak the language fluently, or that I can count further than ten in Cantonese. Nonetheless, they often look at me, slow their speech when they ask a question or talk. When I bust out my Cantonese, the first thing they say in broken English is, “Wah! Yoh Can-toe-knees is supah!” Similar to a big dog praised for sitting, here I was a Chinese Canadian now rewarded for what it seems to have the ability to count to fifteen instead of ten. It is clear in these Chinese community members’ minds, they do not see themselves conversing with a Chinese person. Instead, they believe they are conversing with a Canadian—a member who does not fully belong in the community. I suppose in that situation, I could have, like Rick, adopted the identity of a FOB. Rick has the ability to embrace two identities, which he uses interchangeably depending on the situation. Generally, when he hangs out with his friends, he uses the English language and follows Canadian performative norms. However, when he was having dim sum with Tazmin’s parents, he was embracing and adhering to Hong Kong performative norms. In a sense, he performed these norms to please her parents. The impression of a respectable Chinese boy is represented when he is in the presence of these Hong-Kong natives.

In a study done in Calgary in 2009, only seventeen percent of second generation Chinese Canadians have identified themselves as Chinese and seven percent identified themselves as Canadian. The majority believe to remain label-less or have resorted to adopting a fusion of labels (Costigan et al. 2009). Similarly, near the end of the book, Mike seemed to think that it was appropriate for him not to be labelled Canadian or Chinese. Instead, he seemed to think he was neither. He stated he embraced his banana-hood and as humanity evolves, people’s representations and identities should be constantly challenged. He ends his majestic rant by saying people should never stop questioning themselves and their identity. Like Mike and the majority of second generation Chinese Canadians who participated in aforementioned study, I too consider myself neither fully Chinese nor fully Canadian. Instead, I belong to the brotherhood of bananas. I am a Chinese-Canadian, who found a happy and comfortable equilibrium between the so called Canadian identity and the Chinese identity.

The philosophical nature of Mike’s mother parallels many elders that I know who are of Chinese origin. In Chinese school, we learn proverbs and other philosophical quotes that are assumed to enrich our lives. However, because there is such a cultural divide, many situations mirror the one with Mike and his mother. When she taught Mike the proverb “gon jeut ngoy moh ying”, Mike had no idea what the proverb meant. When she translated it, the meaning did not seem to reach Mike the same way it would, perhaps, reach someone of “true” Chinese origin or older generations. Perhaps this is similar to the generation gap that is seen in many cultures. Nonetheless, as a child, I was told countless quotes that did not translate well and stick with me. Often, I would try to understand, but then, would apologize profusely to my elders when I failed miserably trying to bridge the gap between the proverb and my own reality.

When labelled with a racist term such as “chink” Dave uses violence to deal with his oppression. He then writes a short excerpt in his Racial Incident Log and gives the incident a grade. How he deals with this oppression even perplexes the other bananas. As a CBC reader, while I do understand his position of the so called, “ching chong” talk, the way he deals with this act of oppression seems quite obtrusive and somewhat unnecessary.

As well, throughout the book, Dave is constantly struggling with the concept that Banana girls prefer non-Asian guys because banana boys are “too geeky and quite possibly all gay” (Woo, 1999, p. 151). While this may be the case for some Asian girls, it is a gross exaggeration. True, this stereotype is constantly perpetuated and many have poked fun at this idea. For example, Wong Fu Productions has made a short film on YouTube, about why Asians or banana boys cannot get Asian girls. However, this theory is false in cases such as Dave’s because Dave simply lacks the confidence to approach girls. When he approached TJ, he lacked the confidence he normally has with his friends. To compensate any rejection or loss, he created an exaggerated diagram of the relationship of men and women between the races. So, in some sense, the Venn diagram that Dave drew out, which depicts banana boys unable to “hook up with girls” is somewhat skewed and biased.

Personally, from a banana’s perspective, it seems Dave needs to come to terms with his Chinese-like appearance. Dave, who seems uncomfortable with his Asian side, constantly picks fights with people who states racist comments or constantly finds theories to why he “cannot get the girl”. Perhaps if he was more comfortable with his Chinese-ness, he would be more likely to dismiss comments from others rendering him unaffected and garner up the ability to approach attractive girls.

As I read the pages of Banana Boys, I nod with agreement. The way these characters talk to their parents and their friends, on some level, mirrors my conversations. And if I have not had these conversations with my family and friends, I do understand their point of view. The lived experiences I have had makes these characters relatable to me and while it may not be as relatable to people who are not bananas, my embodiment as a banana helps to make my experiences, somewhat similar to the fictional characters in this book.

Bibliography

Costigan, C., Su, T. F., & Hua, J. M. (2009). Ethnic identity among Chinese Canadian youth: A review of the Canadian literature Canadian Psychology, (50)4, 261–272.

Giroux, H. (1998).Channel Surfing: Racism, the media, and the deconstruction of today’s youth. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Woo, T. (1999). Banana Boys. Toronto: Cormorant Boo