I didn’t realize that I was a banana until I was five years old. I was sitting in a restaurant, attacking my steak with vigor and enthusiasm, when I realized that my grandmother was watching the couple by the window. My older sister, Didi, boldly and gleefully shouted, “It’s rude to stare at others.” I dropped my knife and fork and waited for my grandmother’s reaction. I was sure that she was going to scold Didi for being rude to her elders. I didn’t expect her to smile.
“It is rude to stare,” Grandma agreed. “I was observing them because I was realizing how much times have changed.” I looked at the couple. They were just eating and talking. Nothing about them seemed noteworthy.
My grandmother explained, “She’s Chinese, and he’s American.” This sentence did not enlighten me in the slightest. Didi said, “Grandma, you’re so old fashioned. Things like that don’t matter today.”
My grandmother replied, “They used to. I was in a Chinese restaurant with Grandpa, whom I was dating in college. A man stood up and announced to the entire table of his friends: ‘I hate my parents. I never asked to be born. Why did they have me? My mother is Chinese, and my father is American. And what am I? I am neither one nor the other. I am nothing.’”
I was shocked. The man whom my grandmother described felt that Asian and American cultures could not coexist peacefully. To my five-year old mind, it was inconceivable that one could be miserable because of one’s mixed ethnicity. Yet, even though I could not verbalize my feelings, a quiet voice within could relate to the man who was half-Chinese and half-American.
Apart from my facial features, an affinity for Chinese food seems to be the only imprint of my heritage. When I want to eat Chinese food, I have to order take out because my parents find it easier to cook American foods than traditional foods of their ethnicity. Additionally, my parents speak only in English to my sister and me. My parents cannot communicate in Chinese because they speak dissimilar dialects. My father, born in Hong Kong and raised in Germany, speaks German, Shanghainese, and Cantonese; and my mother, born and raised in New York, speaks very little Mandarin. Even my grandparents converse in English with me. Not surprisingly, I cannot speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, or German. At school, my sister and I chose to learn Spanish.
When I entered kindergarten, diversity was becoming the “in” thing, and all the schools were fighting to demonstrate they had a multi-cultural rainbow of students. My kindergarten class was one of the most diverse classes my school ever had. To make the diverse elements in our class feel comfortable, my school wanted to celebrate the holidays of every culture. The problem is that people make certain assumptions and while they are well intentioned, do not always appreciate the nuances in our heritage. There are six Chinese students in my class of 37 students. But there are subtleties among us that are never acknowledged. The other Chinese girls’ parents were born in Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Generations of my family have been educated in Europe and the United States, so we have a more Western outlook than my Chinese peers. However, you would not be able to distinguish me from my counterparts simply by looking at my skin.
Unlike many Chinese-American families, my family does not celebrate any Chinese holidays or pay homage to any of its traditions. This was made apparent to me when my first grade teachers invited my mother to talk about Chinese New Year to my class. The invitation caused my mother a lot of angst because our family rang in the New Year on January 1, the first day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. My family does not celebrate Chinese New Year according to the lunar calendar. I remember Mom anxiously calling my grandparents for advice; my grandfather merely admonished her, “You know we don’t celebrate Chinese New Year.” In desperation, my mom ended up purchasing books on Chinese New Year at Barnes & Noble and the China Institute. I remember how proud I was when Mom came into my class with silk robes that my great-grandmother had worn, an ivory fan, a scroll, chopsticks, and fortune cookies. (Fortune cookies are not eaten in China; rather, they are served to Americans in Chinese restaurants in the United States.) My mother told us that oranges and shrimp symbolize happiness and noodles signify longevity. Then she explained that certain Chinese traditions, such as cleaning the house and visiting one’s doctor, had to be completed before the New Year. I remember listening to her with pride—and confusion because my family did not adhere to any of these traditions. Did that make me any less Chinese?
Mom was a hit and year after year, even in fourth grade, she was asked to share her heritage. The only problem was that most of her information came from books. In fact, Didi wryly commented that school made her feel more Chinese than she had ever felt at home. Didi claimed that she and I were bananas; yellow on the outside and white on the inside. For many years, I agreed with my sister. I hesitated to circle “Asian” in the ethnicity section of student achievement tests because I didn’t feel “Chinese.” But I couldn’t claim that my family was thoroughly Americanized; my family celebrates its Chinese heritage in small ways. My parents will give my sister and me lucky red money packets on Chinese New Year, if one of their Caucasian friends reminds them of the occasion by wishing them, “Happy Chinese New Year!” In fact, my dad’s Chinese patients remember to give us red money packets more often than my parents do. During birthdays, we all try to eat one long noodle strand for longevity and good luck. My grandmother taught me the Chinese art of paper cutting when I was small. And although my family only converses with each other in English, my grandfather gave me the middle name Yu, which means Jade in Chinese.
It is challenging for the children of immigrant families to hold on to their heritage. For some immigrant children, there may be a conscious desire to “fit in” and forget their roots. But hopefully, now that we are at a place where we make a conscious effort to celebrate “differences,” immigrant children may not feel the need to suppress their identity. For children like me, the difficulty lies in our assimilation. As each generation of my family assimilates in this country, it becomes easier to forget what it means to be Chinese.
In fact, my sister complains that our family approaches our Chinese heritage in a topsy-turvy manner. We call her “Didi,” even though that means younger brother in Chinese. Now that Didi is in college, she has decided to learn Mandarin because “it is embarrassing not to know your own language, especially when Chinese people ask you for directions.”
I have discovered that there are other ways to connect to one’s heritage besides studying a language. After reading in history class about the Chinese immigrants who came to the United States, I began asking my grandmother about my family ancestry. She told me about my great-great-grandfather, Liang Yu Ho, one of the first Chinese to be educated in the United States in 1874. Upon his return to China, he had difficulty reconciling his Chinese heritage and Western upbringing. The discussions with my grandmother led to my decision to write a paper on Liang. The disconnect that I previously felt with my Chinese side has dissipated.
Now, I am no longer a banana, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I confess relief because I detest bananas; they have a slimy, revolting texture. At first when I realized that I was not a banana, I tried to draw comparisons with another fruit – a mango, yellow on the outside and inside? No, that doesn’t describe me. While I appear Chinese on the outside, I am an amalgam of Chinese and American cultures. My Chinese heritage and American upbringing are blended together in such a way that one cannot be simply peeled away from the other. What I am cannot be defined as a fruit or neatly checked off in a box. I am me.
Jennifer Yeoh-Wang, Age 17, Grade 12, The Chapin School, Silver Key