When I was in graduate school, I directed a short play that had an all Asian-American cast and production team. For the most part, we all got along wonderfully and the play was one of the first successes I had as an MFA candidate.
However, there was an incident after rehearsal one evening that has always put a blemish on the whole experience for me.
I was standing in the backlot of the film and theater school, waiting for my boyfriend (now husband) to pick me up to go home, when one of the crew members came to hang out with me and smoke a cigarette.
We chatted about the show, about school, about all the polite things that colleagues but near-strangers talk about, when the conversation took a turn.
“So you’re dating Jim [not his real name]?”
“Yeah, pretty serious.”
“So is this a banana, self-hatred kind of thing?”
I was taken aback for a moment. I’d been called a “banana” before – an Asian person (I most often hear this in reference to Chinese, Japanese, Korean Americans) who is “yellow” on the outside but behaves in a stereotypically white way, so they are “white” on the inside – but pairing it with the blatant accusation of self-hatred seemed needlessly aggressive.
I said “No,” and bit back with something like, “The only person I hate right now is you.” The guy backed off, and passed it off as a joke, but not without throwing in a dash of misogyny for good measure. “I’m just saying, I know Chinese girls like you. Ain’t proud to be with a real Chinese man.”
Eye-rolls aside, the exchange bothered me more than I cared to admit.
In Asian-American culture, there is a whole glossary of words that define how “Asian” a person is. Banana, Twinkie, coconut, FOB, mangosteen, ABCD – and those are just a few of the kinder ones – there is a whole language of Asian-American life meant to pit one’s Asian self against one’s American self.
Banana and Twinkie have similar connotations. An Asian-American person only wears the skin of an Asian, but endeavors to be as white as possible in manner, dress, speech, etc. A similar South Asian-American terms would be coconut.
The insinuation is that the banana or the coconut has purposely distanced themselves from their Asian culture and is “trying” to be white. The “tells” of a banana or coconut is that they typically can’t or won’t speak their family’s mother tongue, they “dress white” instead of in a cultural style or culturally accepted/popular style, they don’t like things typically associated with Asian culture (ex. boba, Sanrio), and they only have white friends or partners.
The accusation is essentially that that person is not Asian enough.
But what is the standard which “Asian” is measured? Does it come down to a question of assimilation or over assimilation?
Assimilation. That word has long been an albatross around the neck of the Asian community.
During the first half of the 20th century in America, when Asian-Americans were either banned, arrested, counted like cattle, or publicly loathed, the question of assimilation was always somewhere in the conversation.
Can Asians ever really assimilate into American culture? Can they ever really be Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans? Where are their loyalties?
Can they ever possibly “adapt” to normal (white) American society?
With the evolution of the model minority, it seemed that a provisional “yes” was granted; the caveat being that in order to be accepted into culture, Asians have shed all former “Asianness”.
Thus was born first, second, and third generation Asian-Americans whose parents encouraged them to speak perfect, accentless English, often at the cost of not speaking their parent’s first language; children who have very little attachment to their culture beyond family gatherings; young adults who identify more with burgers than bao. For many immigrant families where children are being raised from infancy in America, becoming red-white-and-blue-flag-waving-football-cheering-cowboy-boot-wearing examples of Americana is a matter of survival. At least, from their immigrant parents’ perspective.
For such “banana” or “coconut” children, there is no choice. It’s not a rejection of their family’s culture, American culture is their culture.
In a way they’ve fulfilled, as much as a minority in America can, the “dream” of assimilation.
So much of the idea of being “yellow or brown on the outside, white on the inside” hinges on being forced to define what for all intents and purposes is undefinable. Where is the rubric that explains what is appropriately Asian for an Asian-American?
So often it seems a person is “banana” if you do, “FOB” if you don’t.
What is a FOB? It stands for “fresh off the boat.”
A FOB is someone from an Asian country who has not fully assimilated into American culture. The term can mean someone who just got to America, or someone who has been in America for a bit, but has not dropped their foreign ways. FOBs speak broken English, or with a heavy foreign accent.
The joke is that FOBs are immediately identifiable, even before they open their mouths; in their manner, their dress. This is also said of bananas, coconuts, or Twinkies, and especially said of what may be their their originators: the “ABC” or “American Born Chinese” and the “ABCD” or the “American-Born Confused Desi” – a South Asian person who is born in the US and fully identifies as an Indian-American.
In the past, being a FOB has been seen as a bad thing, the opposite end of the spectrum from banana or coconut. I have clear memories of the kids in my family calling each other “fobbbish” as an insult. Like, “Nice American flag t-shirt Louise, you look so fobbish.”
But to some extent, in some cliques, FOB has recently been embraced. As in FOB style, FOB culture, FOB as a reaction against all things “white on the inside.” Words like banana or ABCD have also been embraced by those that have been taunted as such. There’s even a Banana Magazine, a magazine that “strives to navigate through the blurred Eastern and Western boundaries to create a voice for contemporary Asian culture.”
But the question remains, why does there have to be a right way to “do” Asian-American? In a culture that has historically been classified as “other than” by white America, why is there a need to further sub-categorize each other in degrees of assimilation?
In degrees of relative “whiteness”?
And that, to me, is the greatest issue. As criticisms, these terms (as with many slurs or “sorta slurs” used in the west) assume white, western culture as the gauge for normal. If you’re a FOB you can’t normalize; if you’re a banana you’re a try-hard who’s abandoned your culture in order to gain acceptance.
Yes, one might be able to argue that white, western culture has historically been the idea of normal in America, still is. But now more than ever, how can American minorities ever move beyond that one idea of normal if we don’t accept the many ways to live as hyphenate Americans?
FOB and words like banana narrows us to stereotypes – something that so much of white culture endeavors to do to minorities in America anyway. Why reinforce it within our own communities? Why play into their hand?
I realize that terms like banana, coconut, Twinkie, FOB, ABC, ABCD, etc. are terms that probably exist because the various generations of immigrants are still figuring out their place in America. Asian people really haven’t been freely immigrating to America for very long, and Asian-American culture, though distinct, is still struggling to be seen as equal to all things white and western.
To that end, I understand why all the ways to describe Asian-Americans have come about.
I only hope as Asian-Americans keep uniting to resist phobias and anti-Asian sentiment, that we can not only embrace these “sorta slurs” in order to de-fang them, but also embrace the varied and wonderfully undefinable way in which to be Asian-American.