The Great Banana Split (Growing Up as a Banana, Part II)

Last week’s post highlighted experiences I had as a child which shaped how I view myself, my race, and my community. Today’s post is a collection of thoughts on this same topic from my sister, Christina. Christina just completed her Bachelor of Arts in Intercultural Studies with a minor in applied linguistics, and she is currently working on her Master’s in Linguistics and Biblical Languages at Biola University. In this post she shares some of her unique childhood experiences and explains her take on walking the divide between Chinese culture and American culture, or in other words:

The Banana Split

By Christina Toy

PC: Megan Carlson

PC: Megan Carlson

For the past few months, Allison has been sending me some of her blog posts to proofread. When I proofread the last one, I had some time (okay, so I was procrastinating on homework), and I started typing a response to a couple of her follow-up questions. Almost an hour later, I concluded my email and realized that I had a lot more to say than I originally thought! This is an important topic to me, and I hope through discussions like this, it becomes important to many others too!

What I’ve Experienced

One time, I was in a vocal competition in high school, and my judge started giving me feedback after I sang my solo. She said, "I don't see many Asians in choir because they're usually all in orchestra." Then the expected, "Where are you from?" I was so nervous because I was competing, and I wanted to be polite, so I gave the answer I knew she was expecting and said, "China." Which is hilarious. We aren't from China. She also mentioned how many pianos families have in Japan and made some other broad, sweeping generalizations about Asians. 

Another time, I was at a Wycliffe Bible Translators event in Dallas. It exposes people to linguistics so they can see if they're really interested or not. At the dinner table in the cafeteria, one of the other students asked me, "What's your real name?" I replied, "Christina." He said, "No, like what's your real name? Your Chinese name? I have a lot of Chinese friends where I'm from, so I was curious what your real name was." I shamefully told him that I don't even know my Chinese name (now I do because I asked Yin-Yin [paternal grandmother] last year). It was example of how I'd failed my Chinese heritage. I was so incensed that he would tell me what my culture was like. It's the tension of being Chinese American.

Sometimes, my friends in college (who are intercultural studies majors) will joke that I'm not really Chinese because I don't speak Chinese. Others, both students and professors, will ask me if I speak Chinese, and I have to shamefully tell them, "No. I never learned. My parents don't even speak Cantonese." I think to myself, “Ask me about Spanish. I've been studying Spanish since I was eleven years old. I grew up in Houston, where 40% of the population is Hispanic.”

Overseas, the discrimination can be even worse. I've gotten comments in almost every part of the world I've travelled (Eastern Europe, Central America, SE Asia, the Pacific), about my ethnicity. "You're not American," they say, based on the color of my skin, not the color of my passport or my Western worldview. "Are you Mestizo?" asked a woman in the middle of the jungle in PNG, because she'd heard me say that I was from Texas in my testimony earlier, and I definitely wasn't white. The kids in Panamá chanted, "China!" when they spotted me at a ministry site in the mountains. As I anticipate moving to Papua New Guinea in a year and a half, I'm bracing myself for the stereotypes or downright racism that I will probably experience because locals don't like the entrepreneurial Chinese who capitalize on the shaky economy.

“Can't I be both?”

These experiences shape my perception of self be telling me I'm not ____ enough. When I have to tell people that I don't speak Chinese or know my Chinese name or that I get tan because I don't care about having super pale skin, I feel like I'm not Chinese enough. It contravenes their expectations. People don't like ambiguity. We like clearly defined borders, and somehow Chinese American is like swirling the paints together and making the picture muddled. Often, people like the ones I mentioned want to see only one facet of who I am, making sweeping generalizations based on what they know about "Asians" or typical Americans, who in their minds are white. The question I've been asking myself since I was little is, “Can't I be both?”

Sometimes I think we get tired of the race issue. We don't like to keep rehashing the same questions or issues. As an Asian American, sometimes I feel like I can't complain about being a minority. Even though we have a history of racial oppression in the States (Japanese internment camps or the San Francisco railroad, anyone?), it pales in comparison to centuries of slavery. So I think we're afraid to speak up. Microaggressions can seem "micro," insignificant. If we're offended, we're making too big a deal about it. But even if it stems from ignorance, awareness can combat the ignorance.

A lot of times growing up, I didn't know what was "normal" American culture and what was Chinese. Sometimes I still catch myself and realize that, no, not everyone grew up eating tofu on a regular basis. 

Little things, like the fact that we make a distinction in our kinship terms for our maternal and paternal grandparents, made me realize, growing up, that we were different. And I had to wrestle with the question, “Just because I'm different, does that make it bad?” Now, having just received a BA in Intercultural Studies, I can say with conviction that it doesn't make it bad. But to Christina of ten or fifteen years ago, these were very real questions with less clear-cut answers.

I live with a tension between the "Chinese" and "American" parts of my identity. They're both very present. I like to eat lasagna and apple pie, but when I ate at a Korean tofu house with some friends on Sunday, I'm also reminded of our tofu, ground beef, zucchini stir fry we ate every Monday growing up. And I wouldn't change that for the world.

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I'm Asian, Y'all

“You’re Filipino!” my patient remarked as soon as I walked in the room.

“No, actually I’m not. I do kind of look like it though, don’t I?” I acknowledged with a smile.

“You’re not?” The patient paused only for a moment before looking me in the eye and stating with certainty, “Then you’re Mexican!”

I could only stifle laughter at that point.

I could tell a myriad of stories about people and patients commenting on my race. What my professors didn’t tell me was that somehow, when I received my nursing license, all my patients gained a license, too: license to ask whatever they wanted in the most blunt form possible.

One time a couple asked if I was Mexican or Asian. I replied that I was Asian, and their eyes grew wide. “Ohhhh,” one of them exclaimed. The other said, “I thought so! It’s just…the voice threw me off. The accent confused me. Because to my ears…at least from what I was hearing…" She stumbled through her sentence, "There was no accent!”

Other times various Caucasian patients have tried to speak foreign languages to me, like Japanese and Tagalog, even after I told them I was Chinese. And then there’s the patient who, when I told him my race, said, “I was wondering! I knew you weren’t Texan.” He quickly realized his faux pas and recovered with, “I mean, you are Texan…. We’re all Texan!

Just for the record: I’m Chinese. I was born in the States. I don’t have an accent because English is my first language. I don’t speak Chinese at all, aside from being able to order dim sum. I do speak some Spanish and a bit of Khmer (Cambodian).

I bring up these stories not simply because they're humorous but also because they matter to me. I am not offended by these comments; in fact, most of the time I find them hilarious. Yet it seems people become downright awkward when asking about race. Sometimes they are rude and insensitive, but mostly they are simply unsure of how to be tactful while acknowledging a difference in skin color.

Thus this post: an outlet for anecdotes as well as some practical suggestions to help navigate what can be an awkward exchange when you need to resolve the secret debate in your family of whether that girl is Korean or Chinese.

Suggestion #1: Please don’t ask, “So…what are you?”

The answer to that is “a human being, just like you.” I don’t know what else to say about this one…

Suggestion #2: Please don’t ask, “Where are you from?”

I used to get stressed when people asked this. I would analyze the situation, them, their cultural background, our conversation and relationship up until that point - all in a couple seconds - before deciding whether to answer, “Houston” or “My family is from China.”

Because if I chose the wrong reply, one of us looked like an idiot. Either I did because they actually wanted to know my hometown, or they did because then they had to find another way to ask my race. Or they followed up with the cringe-worthy, “No, where are you from?”

Now I always answer, “Houston.” I don’t feel like an idiot with that answer because the truth is, that’s where I’m from, and that’s what they asked.

Suggestion #3: Think twice before asking, “What kind of Asian are you?”

What kind of White are you? Not sure different countries can be considered “kinds” of Asia (like “kinds” of candy or clothes or something?). To be fair, depending on context and tone, this can be a tactful way of asking more about someone’s background.

Suggestion #4: Try using more direct words instead of vague questions that leave me wondering what you really want to know. 

I prefer when people ask me questions with the words “race,” “ethnicity,” “cultural heritage,” or any of those combined with “background” (ie, racial/ethnic background).

For example, a couple people with whom I work have asked about my race in straight-forward and non-awkward ways. In fact, the day after I drafted this, I heard someone at work come up behind me and say my name.

“Yes?” I replied.

“What nationality are you?”

“Chinese,” I replied. Thus the mystery was solved and the break-room debate resolved, all in a matter of seconds. No awkwardness involved.

Suggestion #5: Recognize any faux pas, and acknowledge them in conversation.

The patient who said, “I knew you weren’t Texan,” wasn’t trying to be rude. In fact, he was one of the most culturally sensitive patients for whom I’ve cared. Perhaps what showed his sensitivity most was recognizing his mistake and attempting to fix it.

Of course, these five suggestions are my preferences, and I don't have a lower view of anyone who asks me, "What are you?" However, hopefully this post offers some help in avoiding awkward situations and unintentional microaggression.

I receive questions about my race so frequently that I used to say if no one commented on my race or age at work, it’d be a landmark day. Recently that landmark day came - but instead of those classic questions, someone asked me something else: "How much do you weigh?"

So, bottom line, even if you don't remember a single suggestion from this Chinese-American, Spanish-speaking Texan: 

Be direct, and be honest, but try not to ask me about my weight!

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