Musings of a Banana

'Banana' is one of the many labels that people associate me with. For those of you who don't know, the term 'banana' is used to describe a Chinese person whose first language is English.

Being raised in a purely English-spoken household, my strongest language has and always been English, even though I was educated in Chinese schools till form three. Due to this, I've often been categorized as one, when I'm really just 'semi-banana'. :P

My experience with the language
I'm not going to sugarcoat it: I didn't enjoy learning Chinese as a child. While I generally did well in English and Bahasa Malaysia, my Chinese subject was consistently the worst grade on my report card.

This came with a few side effects. My teachers--who mainly spoke chinese--didn't particularly like me as a student because I favored English more in my studies. As an example, I had an experience in standard six, when my form teacher said, "Eh, you think your English so good you think you can score straight A's ah?"

I didn't by the way, I scored 6A's out of 7 subjects. Surprisingly, I scored an A for my Chinese composition, so take that! Hah!

Many times, I found myself asking my mom why she chose to enroll me in a Chinese school. I struggled with the pinyin, the vocabulary, the grammar--basically everything associated with my mother tongue. Due to this, I developed an indifference towards the language, and sadly, to my own culture as well.

I would love to say that this got better when I entered secondary school, but it only intensified. There was an occasion where I deliberately failed my Chinese paper in form two, because I refused to memorize and regurgitate the eight poems that carried 60% of our paper. (You can tell that I was a bit of rebel in school too.)

It would be easy to just blame my teachers' discrimination as the cause of my attitude towards the language (and it was, kinda), but it definitely wasn't the only one.

Orang Cina yang bukan Cina.
There has always been a perception that if you're Chinese, you HAVE to speak Mandarin. When confronted by relatives during Chinese New Year visits, they often asked me if I enjoy learning the language.
"No, not really," I admitted, on countless occasions.
"Aiya," my aunt would chastise me, "hua ren yao hui jiang hua yu." Which (loosely translated, I apologise for my atrocious pinyin) means, Chinese people need to be able to speak Chinese.
Now, here's my question: If I don't speak the langauge, does it make me any less Chinese? Even if I enjoy Chinese food, or love my grandmother's hand-me-down cheongsam, or practice practically every other aspect of Chinese culture except for speak the language fluently, I am not considered to be Chinese?
No, of course not.
People think that we don't learn it because we don't care enough. This is not true. Not even close. I do care, we do care. In fact, we care a lot. We're just not as linguistically talented as the rest of you, that's all.
This kind of Us Against Them kind of mindset is the exact thing that we should be avoiding. It is the same toxic mindset that is not only discriminating, but also insulting to my other chinese peers who were educated in english or malay medium schools who do not speak the language. Who are just as brilliant and wonderful as their Chinese speaking counterparts.
Because you are discrediting them, not only as members of a certain race, but as people.
And frankly, it doesn't make people want to learn the language more--it only pushes them further away.

To clear the air...
Let me make this clear: I do not hate Chinese culture. In fact, I have a genuine love and appreciation for it. It is comforting and familiar. It is something that I've known my entire life. When I moved to Kuala Lumpur and discontinued my education in Mandarin, I have grown to acknowledge its worth. Sometimes, I even miss it.

I don't speak it very often--only occasionally when I'm ordering hawker food, or communicating to someone who doesn't understand another language--but I have grown to appreciate my mother's insistence that I continue learning the language, even when I didn't want to.

Because in spite of everything, I realize that it acts as a catalyst in bringing together people. It is a form of communicative solidarity. It comes hand in hand with the traditional values of discipline and hard work taught by our culture. I can't even begin to recount the many times I've encountered a confused person, struggling to communicate, and with a single sentence uttered in Mandarin, you see their face light up in joy (or relief), "Ni hui jiang hua yu ah?"

I may not have enjoyed learning the language, nor do I condone the ways people advocate the learning of the language, but I strongly agree that it is an integral part of our identity as Chinese people. Its our way of honouring our ancestors, who crossed oceans to build lives in foreign lands, because we are speaking the same language.

To conclude things
So yeah. I am still 95% Banana, but I know that somewhere deep inside, there is a part of me that is and will always be 100% Chinese. There is nothing wrong with not being able to speak the langauge, because at the end of the day, if you identify as a Chinese person, you are one. Nothing else matters.

I may not have always enjoyed learning Chinese, but I realize that it is a useful tool in everyday life, and also a part of who I am.
And hey, I might even consider sending my kids to Chinese schools, who knows?
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