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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Growing Up as a Banana

“Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” That’s what the term “banana” means. You guessed it: I'm Chinese American

I grew up in a primarily Caucasian Houston neighborhood, and though I wouldn’t say I faced discrimination, there are a few things I experienced simply because I wasn’t white. I dismissed those memories as unimportant for a long time, but today I want to recognize them because they do matter—especially as a child, which is when these experiences occurred.


 Memory #1: Playground Woes

We were playing a game of tag on the playground at the YMCA during my brother’s baseball practice. My sister and I joined the other players’ younger siblings to swing, show off our monkey bar skills, and finally play tag. It was all fun and games until one of the little boys asked what my ethnicity was.

“I’m Chinese American,” small, elementary-aged me replied proudly.

“Oh! China!” came the quick response.

Before I knew what was happening, this little boy egged on every child on the playground to chant with him: “Chi-na! Chi-na! Chi-na!” (And not in a kind, we’re-cheering-you-on way.)

Unfortunately, I happened to be “it” at the time, so I tried extra hard to tag another person and get rid of this unnecessary attention. Confused and upset, I just couldn’t catch them, and all of a sudden, as kids do, this little boy changed the rules of the game. 

“You can’t climb on the playground when you’re ‘it,’” he announced. “Only the other kids can climb.”

The rule change was accepted without second thought.

Thus began the real frustration. Somehow my younger sister also ended up being “it” (another unfair rule change in the middle of our game?), so the two of us ran in circles on the ground while the other boys and girls stood on the structure, taunting us by hanging off platforms until we got close, and then scurrying back into the middle of the play structure, out of reach. 

Over and over it happened. The little ringleader boy would stick his foot out. We’d see it and feverishly lunge toward it to tag him, and he’d pull back just in time and retreat to safety to laugh at us. All the while, the chanting continued.

“Chi-na! Chi-na! Chi-na!”

Suddenly, baseball practice was over. Parents came to pick up their children, and everyone dispersed. Practice ended, the game of tag ended, and so did my innocent pride for my heritage. I was humiliated.

I held my dad’s hand as we walked across the grass toward the parking lot.

“What country were they shouting?” he asked gently.

“China,” I mumbled, and then all was quiet.

Up until now, that’s the last time I spoke of this event to anyone, ever. Shame has that effect. As a child, I learned many things that day, but most of all, I learned to be ashamed my heritage was different.

Memory #2: The Eyes

This isn’t necessarily a single memory as it is a collection of them. It happened so many times I can’t even count or recount them all. But basically each time was the same:

Chinese anything came up in conversation—Chinese culture, Chinese names, Chinese food—and one of my little Caucasian friends would impulsively put their fingers to their eyes and squint to make it look like they had “China eyes.” Sometimes gibberish would come out of their mouths as they spoke “Chinese.”

Occasionally moms and dads would scold their children, but most of the time parents weren’t present. To say it was awkward is an understatement. Sometimes the kids didn’t even know I was Chinese, and after a few initial times of telling them to “please stop because I am Chinese and it isn’t nice to make fun of people,” my spunk shrunk and I shut up.

Now, much later in life, every once in a while close friends and I will joke about my eyes, but there’s a definite line between mutual joking with a friend and mocking someone’s (or a whole people group’s) appearance.

It took me a lot longer than the playground incident to learn this lesson as a child, but learn it I did: it’s not cool to look different from other people. I learned to be ashamed of my appearance because I wasn’t white.

Here and Now

Were those children trying to make me ashamed of who I was? No, I don’t believe so. Children do and say inappropriate things all the time. That’s how they learn. I’m sure I said and did plenty of offensive things too when I was young. There is grace for all.

Why then am I even bringing this up? Because although there is indeed grace, there’s also a very real impact these events had on my perception of self. Today, I am so grateful for the diversity of my upbringing. I’m proud of the fact I grew up in a Chinese American family, and I’m proud of my heritage. Yet it’s taken some time to regain this pride.

I know now the “yellow on the outside” isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s something to be treasured. I am not less beautiful because I am Asian, and the unique heritage I carry is a gift and an honor.

In a time when there is a huge push for “tolerance” and “acceptance,” perhaps it’s wise to remember the actions which seem most insignificant often have the deepest and most long-lasting impact on those around us.



Thanks for reading! There are many issues I didn’t address in this post, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them:

  • Is there an imbalance between the passion around ballot issues for equality and the willingness to identify & adjust our personal, everyday biases and shaming practices?
  • If so, how do we address everyday shame-creating actions/conversations?
  • How do we help young people process these shameful moments/interactions?
  • What are ways childhood experiences shaped how you view(ed) yourself (race-related or not)?
  • How did you process these experiences?

Leave a comment, send an email, or come share a cup of coffee with me and tell me what you think in person!

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