What to do when someone
calls you a ‘banana’

When bullies say “You are not Chinese enough”

Bananas

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Why, then, does being called a “banana” leave such a sour taste in one’s mouth and stink up one’s entire day? Juliet, William Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, must have never been accused of being “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” (a Chinese person who is of a Western disposition, i.e. unable to speak, read or write in Chinese), possibly on account of her alabaster skin.

Growing up, being called a banana was at best a light-hearted tease and at worst a form of verbal abuse. Children can be cruel. At school, my classmates who spoke Chinese—be it Mandarin, Hokkien or some other dialect—would taunt me for speaking English at home. My fairly decent command of our national language didn’t seem to count for much; the colour of my skin was what mattered, and I had apparently failed the shade of my epidermis.

It’s enough to make a kid bitter before his time.

What to do? You learn to thicken your skin (no pun intended). Maybe it’s true, that I’m not “Chinese” enough, whatever that means. But guess what? People care if you try anyway.

I remember persuading (okay, coercing) my Chinese-educated better half to help me translate investment jargon into pinyin (the phonetic transcription of the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet) for a talk I had to give to a group of Chinese entrepreneurs. I was probably rubbish, but my audience still kindly applauded.

It’s not just Chinese either. I remember ordering in half-baked Deutsch at a Bavarian tavern, and learning the German word for “maybe” (vielleicht) was always a safe answer when the waitress asked you something you didn’t understand. I remember making a business pitch in what amounted to my rendition of Bahasa Indonesia in Jakarta and scoring a few laughs (not to mention the deal in the end).

People care if you try.

The thing I’ve learned is this: every time you learn a new language, even the rudimentary bits—you don’t have to master it—you see the world in a new light. There are so many new adventures and experiences to be had. To limit oneself would be to see, hear, smell, understand and connect less.

Today I am still Chinese illiterate—these beautiful, ancient characters are merely graceful strokes to me. I’m not complaining; even if I can’t read or write in Chinese, I can still speak and understand enough. It’s a blessing and a privilege.

But yes, I’m still a banana.

The strange thing is, as I have realised over the years, those who call us bananas are bananas too, sort of—they are yellow on the outside and yellow on the inside (which makes them really ripe bananas, but bear with my metaphor). Bananas don’t even have to be ethnically Chinese—bananas can be white, brown or black on the outside yet all remain yellow on the inside. Some years ago I witnessed an African salesperson at Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo explaining the finer points of a smartphone to a tourist from China in pitch-perfect Mandarin.

That’s when I realised that speaking Chinese doesn’t make one the least bit Chinese (though it may well deepen one’s appreciation of its values). Conversely, you don’t have to speak a language to have profound love for the culture.

You see, everyone who has ever heaped abuse at me by calling me a banana has missed the point. I can’t feel offended because, honestly, I’m not Chinese at all. I’m Malaysian, and damn proud of it too.

On the other hand, the term “banana”—though it may sound derogatory—fits perfectly. I love who I am—I’m considering organising a Banana Pride Parade—and I’m proud to be a banana. It means I have more to learn. It means that sometimes I have to depend on my family, friends and partners who do speak Chinese (or Spanish or German or Japanese…) and deepen my relationship with them.

This is a blessing. This is an opportunity. This is a very good thing.

Perhaps one day those angry people who call me names will learn to love themselves too.

Till that day comes, I shall spend my time baking some banana cake for my friends—both bananas and non-bananas—because they are all fantastic people. Their hearts are big enough to love me for who I am; I only hope that they have appetites to match for I plan to have plenty of delicious banana cake to share.

Banana cake

MOIST BANANA CAKE WITH CRUMBLE

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of freshly baked banana cake wafting through your home. The heady combination of cinnamon, caramelised dark sugars and deeply flavourful banana (make sure the fruits are ripe) can lift up your spirits on rainy days or when the world seems too chaotic to bear. The cake itself isn’t too crumbly (hence the joyful addition of the crumble topping). Instead it has a tender bite; closer to a kuih than a traditional cake. If you like something crustier, toast the slices in the oven for further 3-5 minutes. Share this simple cake with those who love and support you; it’s best enjoyed with bold, black coffee and plenty of laughter.

Cake batter:
125g butter
150g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
2 very ripe medium-sized bananas, mashed
200g self-raising flour
4 tablespoons milk

Crumble topping:
60g all-purpose flour
60g Muscovado or dark brown sugar
60g butter

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Grease a 28 x 15 cm loaf tin. Melt the butter, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat before adding the mashed bananas and beaten egg, mixing well. Fold in the flour and lastly add the milk. Pour into the loaf tin.

For the crumble topping, squeeze the crumble ingredients together with your hands. Scatter the crumble evenly over the surface of the batter. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven to cool on a rack or plate before unmoulding.

Yield: Serves 4, or 2 with enough leftovers to reheat for breakfast the next day.

 



This essay has been adapted from my article in The Sunday Mail, May 4, 2014.



20 Responses

  1. Tempus May 6, 2014 / 4:44 pm

    What is fun is when you are being called a banana, when you are a pure Chinese inside out LOL. It’s always the way we speak and familial upbringing which made us being called Banana in the first place I guess?

    As in, we aren’t stereotypical enough to be Chinese hence, banana.

    But I know the language, came from a family who prayed to ancestors for the past 23 years and still, some mistook me as a Banana trolololol.

    Among our friends, only those who can’t do the language becomes a banana.

    I’m practically a Rojak by now. Or at least an Asian one LOL

    • Kenny Mah May 6, 2014 / 6:07 pm

      A “rojak” (literally: Malaysian mixed fruit salad) isn’t a bad thing; it’s a proud affirmation of our multicultural roots. Hurrah!

  2. Shannon May 6, 2014 / 10:05 pm

    Want to share your banana cake recipe? :)

    • Kenny Mah May 7, 2014 / 9:59 am

      Hehe, thanks for reminding me, dear. I’ve updated the post with the recipe above. Yay!

  3. wokandspoon May 7, 2014 / 4:54 am

    Beautifully written Kenny! Sign me up for your banana pride parade!

  4. jemima May 7, 2014 / 3:04 pm

    Hello Banana! I’m Potato!

    Let’s sing & dance… babe!

    Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-nana

    ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-nana

    banana-ah-ah (ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-nana)

    potato-na-ah-ah (ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-nana)

    banana-ah-ah (ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-nana)

    togari noh pocato-li kani malo mani kano chi ka-baba, ba-ba-nana

    yoh plano boo la planonoh too ma bana-na la-ka moobi talamoo

    ba-na-na ba-ba (ba-ba-ba-ba-banana) POH-TAAA-TOH-OH-OH (ba-ba-ba-ba-banana)

    togari noh pocato li kani malo mani kano chi ka-ba-ba, ba-ba-nanaaaaah

    • Kenny Mah May 8, 2014 / 10:23 am

      Hehe. Now you’ve made me think of a banana-and-potato smoothie. Yums.

  5. Average Joe May 7, 2014 / 7:30 pm

    Growing up in Penang, most of my family members speak Hokkien at home but when I moved to KL, some Chinese KLites Ah Soh think I am not Chinese because I can’t speak Cantonese and Mandarin.

    • Kenny Mah May 8, 2014 / 10:24 am

      To each their own, right? We are who we are, whatever language/dialect we speak.

  6. Junbug May 8, 2014 / 9:45 pm

    Hahaha your blog post made me laughed out loud, literally! Banana Pride Parade – brilliant doesn’t even cut it! Omg I have to go spread the word among my banana-calling friends! (Yes I still call them friends as the nickname ‘banana’ now is an endearing term, plus they think it suits me as I’m dating, according to them, an egg (white on the outside, yellow on the inside)).

    But yes, hilarious as it is now to me, I used to be hurt as a child because I was a ‘banana’ but then I realised that it’s just a term and if I let it be derogatory, it will be. So I just choose to laugh along nowadays and point out the fact that while I can’t read or write in Chinese, I’m a proud rojak through and through. You can take the banana out of Malaysia, you can’t take Malaysia out of the banana.

    p/s: I will try your banana cake recipe!

    • Kenny Mah May 10, 2014 / 4:02 pm

      I know exactly what you mean about how the name “banana” can be endearing rather than hurtful, if it’s said by friends who care for us. There is a difference between teasing amongst friends and being taunted by bullies.

      There’s a song by Joe Jackson — Real Men with this line: “So don’t call me a faggot, not unless you are a friend.”

      That’s how it is.

      I haven’t heard of an “egg” though; does that mean a Caucasian who speaks Chinese? How cool! (I remember an incident in Taipei where I was trying to speak German to a German student who was trying to speak Mandarin to me… and our friends staring agog.)

      P.S. Good luck with the banana cake! I bet yours taste even better.

      P.P.S. I love this: “You can take the banana out of Malaysia, you can’t take Malaysia out of the banana.” So true!!

      • Junbug May 10, 2014 / 6:56 pm

        Haha, no, an “egg” doesn’t have to be a Caucasian who can speak Chinese. I think the definition of an “egg” (where I am living now) are for Caucasians who immerse themselves in Asian culture. Again, it’s a very loose definition, and of course, an endearing term for my boyfriend! Our inside joke is whether he is scrambled, boiled, fried (sunny side up) or poached :P

        • Kenny Mah May 11, 2014 / 7:38 pm

          That sounds like plenty of fun—he could be scrambled, boiled, fried or poached, depending on your mood, haha.

  7. ciki May 15, 2014 / 8:32 am

    errr.. ppl still call me banana , and i find it funny! I am.. i am a banana :P hehe

    • Kenny Mah May 16, 2014 / 4:16 pm

      You are one beautiful banana, dear. Hugs!

  8. Christy May 19, 2014 / 2:38 pm

    This is one beautifully written article, Kenny, and it really speaks for most of us who have at some point or another being called or referred to as a ‘banana’ simply because we go to the national mainstream schools and converse more in the national and international language to fulfill the requirements in our school. I wrote about this before too, in an essay, and I have discussed about this topic with many of my friends (in a friendly way, of course! :-)

    It is a really derogatory term, I totally agree and we have grown up hearing this many times. To your honor, you’re not really a ‘banana’ if you can still speak Chinese; for according to my Chinese-ed friends, the term usually refers to those who can’t even comprehend or know anything about the Chinese culture.

    I know and can speak Chinese; which I have picked up on my own though I never attended the secular schools or went to any Chinese language classes but it did not make me any less happier today. I am proud of my background, and yes, we are all Malaysians and given the chance to turn back time, I would still choose to go to the same school, and converse proudly in Bahasa Malaysia and English and also hang out with all my Malay and Indian friends; a unique environment which was definitely symbolic of our country’s racial harmony and which formed who we truly are today.

    Let them say what they want, we do not have to resort back to those names, for some just simply do not even understand the term and its meaning to begin with before they start using it on others.

    Oh, and to the fruit’s credit, it’s one awesome fruit bursting with health benefits and potassium right? ;-)

    P.S. Love how you linked it to the banana cake, LOL, made me laugh so much! I really enjoyed your article, and it just brought back the sentiments…I truly can relate! ;-)

    • Kenny Mah May 19, 2014 / 4:07 pm

      Thank you for sharing your own thoughts on this, Christy. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who is proud of who I am—we may not be “Chinese” enough for some, but we are certainly Malaysian enough for ourselves!

      Here’s to no more name-calling and bullying.

      P.S. I really ought to share my frozen banana smoothie recipe next; it’s truly one awesome fruit!

      • Christy May 20, 2014 / 11:57 am

        Let them think what they want, we are definitely ‘Chinese’ in many ways that we know and in our lifestyle. After all, we are still proud of our Chinese ancestry and never denied we were Chinese just because we do not write Chinese and that’s already something to be proud of. We never turned our backs on our culture just because we did not go to a Chinese school, and we should never be judged for that :-)

        For that, I think we deserve to be proud! Yes, cheers to ourselves and we shall ignore those names ;-)

        Go ahead and share the recipes, lol, Kenny…I’m foreseeing more banana recipes coming up soon!

        Btw, congrats on being a writer and your successes now! Awesome, love your articles! :-)

        • Kenny Mah May 22, 2014 / 3:35 pm

          Thanks, dear. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be able to write. I really appreciate the support. I am doing my best to keep writing better articles; there’s a long way to go for me yet!

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