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.
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.
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
60g all-purpose flour
60g Muscovado or dark brown sugar
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.