To My Banana Sisters
I remember when I first heard someone use the word “banana” to describe themselves, it was the adopted Chinese daughter of a distant family friend who’d used it in a college essay. She used the term to describe her identity, which, like a banana was “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” I’m adopted from China. I was born in Changsha, Hunan Province, which is in the South East region of the country. I was about one month old when I was found outside of a police station. I didn’t come with papers. I didn’t come with any clues as to who or where I came from. And no, I don’t think I ever will find out, but I’ve accepted this.
I’m one of the many thousands of Chinese girls adopted into white American families since the ‘90s. As a result of China’s one-child policy, we were most likely put up for adoption because of our gender. That’s a stereotype of course, and there are countless of other reasons why birth parents abandon(ed) their babies, even in China. Unfortunately though, the adopted girls to boys ratio leaves little room for imagination.
When I was growing up it was ingrained into me that the likelihood of my birth parents simply having been too sick or too poor to keep me were trumped by the likelihood that they simply could not afford to have a baby girl. China is a country where having a baby boy was (and in some ways still is) more economically and socially beneficial. Let’s acknowledge that I’m using sweeping generalizations, but in all honesty, they make sense.
I’m not bitter about my adoption—I forgave my birth parents a long time ago. China, however, is a different story. Its one-child policy, implemented in 1979, was repealed in 2014. Now families are more willing to keep their girls (hallelujah). This is great because at its worse, China had a 1.22 to 1 ratio of males to females. To illustrate how bad this is, in 2020, regardless of any attempts to fix things, there will be at least 30 million more marrying-aged men than women (2008 data from National State Population and Family Planning Commission). That’s a shit ton of bachelors.
It’s now obvious that in order to guarantee China’s future, women in this historically patriarchal society must finally be seen as valuable. However, the girls China lost during the one-child policy’s reign were forced to find personal value elsewhere. The girl who compared herself to a banana in the college essay mentioned above isn’t a close friend of mine by any means. I’ve only met her once in my life. But just as our white parents are bonded by their experience of adopting from China, we’re bonded by the experience of being adopted from China. I call her my sister, as well as all the other girls like us. Regardless of how little I know and knew her, her words hit close to home.
Throughout my life I’ve been yelled at from both sides of the aisle I walk on—my Chinese racial identity and my American ethnic identity. I’ve experienced conflicting reactions on both ends. I’ve never found my voice in either. A sister calling herself a banana haunts me because it reflects a sad reality—the culture that adopted her and that she adopted in return, inevitably rejected her. Just like China. Only, instead of it being a problem of gender, it was a problem of race. At the same time, even if she, or we, had turned to our racial identity for comfort, there wouldn’t be any.
Don’t get me wrong, my life has been amazing to say the least. The opportunities I’ve had access to are unparalleled. But I’ve come to realize that the price of overlooking the bullshit that American culture continuously throws our way has resulted in subtle self-hatred. For a long time I allowed the privilege that came from being raised “white” in America to overshadow my deeply embedded feeling of otherness.
The otherness I feel didn’t just appear one day after I looked in a mirror and realized oh shit, I’m totally not white. It also didn’t appear after any of my parents’ attempts to help my sister and I feel some sort of connection to our Chinese identity by signing us up for kung fu, sending us to Chinese classes after school, or taking us to China, just to see it.
Although my parents have only ever accepted and embraced my sister and I, ensuring that we were raised in a culture of inclusivity, my extended family continues to forget, apparently, who’s Xia and who’s Mimi. We’ve become Mia and Xi Xi (pronounced ‘see see’), or in other words, two very different Asians they can’t distinguish from one another.
I remember when a boy told me in high school that he wasn’t “into Asian girls”. This unsolicited comment was, aside from irrelevant (seeing as I’m a lesbian and couldn’t care less what type of girl he was into), confusing because right after he said, “I’m not into Asian girls,” he added, “but you’re not really Asian so that’s why I’m into you.”
But then there was the boy in second grade who used to pick on me because I was Chinese. He used to say, “You’re never going to be tall because you’re Asian and Asian people are dwarfs” or “How do Chinese people see? Their eyes are so thin.” Sometimes he’d mimic the broken English of an FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). There was the classic pulling of the corners of his eyes, stretching them into slits and saying, “Ching chong wing wong! Do you understand what I said?”
Then there was the time I confronted a jerk, who was your average aggressive Bostonian headed to a Bruins game, drinking on the Red Line. Of course people around him were super uncomfortable, so being the outspoken woman I am I said, “I recommend you get off at the next stop because what you’re doing is illegal and no one wants you here”. His response to this was, unsuprisingly, “Shut the fuck up. This Chinese bitch is trying to kick me off the train, this Chinese bitch.”
These instances of blatant rejection were numerous. As Asian women, my Chinese adopted sisters and I have been made fun of for our eyes, our noses, our skin, our faces overall—which apparently look like they were “hit with pans”. We’ve been catcalled by “konichiwas” and “damn I love me some tight Asian pussy’s”, and creeped on by men who, due to the West’s othering of the East, look at Asian women like slices of exotic meat served on fine china—mouthwateringly fragile and submissive. Then, in what they think are cute and flirtatious gestures, try to ask where we’re from as if we aren’t already sufficiently disgusted. The culture from which we derive our American ethnicity, the one that continues to treat us as strangers and objects, has caused us to internalize the deprecating comments and stereotypes they’ve created. Oh the irony of how the culture that took us in when our own omitted us, is in some ways just as oppressive as the other. Yet, being raised in it and being cared for in it has led me at least, to overlook a lot because of the privileges it has afforded me.
Sometimes I worry that it’s possible for me to appropriate the pain of Asian Americans.
Sometimes I worry that it’s possible for me to appropriate the pain of Chinese Americans.
Sometimes I worry that if I were to speak up about how frustrated I feel, I’d be doing a great injustice to those who weren’t raised by white parents who could give them a taste of white privilege.
I’m worried primarily because I don’t know what it’s like to have grandparents in China, or to be a first generation immigrant, or to have parents who were sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution; a dad who knows how to farm from this experience and turned the backyard of our home into a garden, a mom who came to America knowing no English. I don’t know what it’s like to be embarrassed by a “super Chinese” family that sticks out like a sore, yellow thumb and not having the ability to distance myself from them. I don’t know what it’s like to have a conversation in Chinese, or to celebrate their New Years on the actual day, or to know people close to me who reminisce and remember what life was like in China.
Most importantly, I do not know what it’s like to have grown up in a “traditional” or “authentic” Chinese culture at all. Everything I just listed were speculations, stereotypes, and examples that I feel like me and my adopted sisters have used to differentiate what it means to be ethnically Chinese from being ethnically American. This is where the problem lies: race and ethnicity seem to blend together in many circumstances. It’s really easy to forget that there are a lot of people who are a certain race that don’t have any cultural connections to the countries from which they came. They are free agents in the vast world of ethnicities. But when you are a minority in a predominantly white society, it’s difficult to find comfort and space because there will always be reminders that you are the outsider, the “other”. Those reminders can also be internalized, and when they become internalized they emerge in the form of an essay in which a Chinese girl identifies herself as a “banana”.
I wish that no matter where we grew up, we wouldn’t have had to disconnect from our racial identity because it’s something that runs in our blood and no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever leave it behind. But I understand that it’s hard not to become disconnected. So I just hope that someday my banana sisters can revisit their Chinese identity and realize just how much autonomy they have to define what it means to them, as individuals. Maybe they’ll still identify as bananas and that’s okay. But I hope, even though there is plenty of anger and pain to be felt, that they’ll embrace being Chinese just enough to at least accept it as a part of them. And it will peacefully wait to be acknowledged as an integral part of their being and not something that can be reduced to a piece of fruit.
Illustration by Pimploy Phongsirivech