The Banana Trap

Asian-Americana and “Fresh Off the Boat”


The first time I was called a chink, it wasn’t meant as an insult. My sister and I were a few weeks into an annual tennis summer camp (one of the few activities sanctioned by our parents), and one of our only friends there — a pasty, cherub-cheeked boy who went by a nickname long since forgotten — turned to me as we were picking balls up after a game and asked:

“Do you know what a chink is?”

I wish I remembered how I’d reacted, but the fact that I’d gotten through over a decade of living in America without hearing the word must mean that societal attitudes about Asians and Asian-Americans (with “Asian” being shorthand for Chinese/Japanese/Korean and other “yellow-skinned” “compatriots”) were cool… right?

In the years that followed, more moments like these were seared into my mind — that time a shrimpy kid with a blonde bowl haircut chased my friend down a school hallway yelling “DOG EATER!”; my deep embarrassment whenever my Chinese mother started shriek-laughing after drinking more than two glasses of wine; two boys braying, “Why are Asian girls always so fucking loud?” while smirking at me; one of those same boys explaining how he didn’t want to sleep with Asian girls, but “It would just kind of happen because they throw themselves at you”; the gaggle of men debating the hotness of one of their peers, with one of them explaining, “Well, she’s only half-Asian”; the woman on the street calling after me “Don’t all Orientals carry thousands of dollars?” after I’d handed her some change.

What does it mean that I remember it all? What does it mean that I find myself wondering why I remember it all, when I know why?

The hyphenated minority experience is not some singular, monolithic thing, which is why I watched the development of Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang’s memoir-turned-ABC sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, with tempered interest. Huang, one of several high-profile male Asian-American chefs who are geniuses at branding ethnic food, postures within the “bad boy chef” archetype. But strip down the tattoos and the respectable established food world (read: white) company, and you’ve got an Asian man doggedly rising above stereotypical features: emasculation, nerdiness, undefined magical computer skills.

In interviews with New York Magazine, the New York Times, the New Yorker (the list goes on), Huang alternates between lambasting ABC’s attempt to adapt and defang his memoir — bringing up example after example of how the network tried to remove his childhood from its ethnic-specific and whiteness-combative roots — to admitting that hey, perhaps this is as good as it’s going to get for now, and maybe that’s okay. This is modern Asia-America’s network TV debut (two decades out from its last effort), and if it doesn’t strike as hard into the heart of whiteness as he wanted it to, there will be future chances, because the bamboo ceiling has been broken.

But Huang’s version of the Asian-American experience is alien to me. “Growing up in Chinese school, parents and kids gave me a hard time, calling me ‘black,’ so my dad started identifying me as a ‘rotten banana’: black on the outside, yellow on the inside,” he writes in the NY Mag piece. This, coming from a man whose Twitter name is RICH HOMIE HUANG, who cites Lil Wayne and Biggie in the same breath as the Chinese Exclusion Act. He’s not alone in that sentiment: this particular cultural exchange — black to yellow — is almost always an Asian male-specific influence, whether it’s through hip-hop music, b-boying, or sneakerhead culture. (Shit, even my Chinese professor grandfather, once in America, became obsessed with the NBA.)

Huang sees the banana as yellow on the inside, but for me, the situation was reversed: yellow on the outside and white on the inside. It is the acknowledgement that, once the social separation of the races became an unwritten law (which happened somewhere between 5th and 6th grade where I lived), for some Asians and Asian-Americans, the easiest way to make friends in school was to “act” white in specific ways, whether it be participating in team sports or by not being in all honors classes. (How perverse it is, that one route to acceptance was to simply “underachieve.”) Sure, there were people who could just “be” Asian without any of the scrutiny, but they were either exoticized or ridiculed.

I looked at my white peers with envy and longing, because they could do literally anything without being told “Wow, you’re so Asian!” or its backhanded counterpart, “Wow, you’re such a cool Asian!” Huang lashed back at whiteness by adopting non-white avatars and holding a grudge, but all I’d wanted was to assimilate. I prayed for anyone to pick me out of a black-haired, slant-eyed lineup, and would’ve cast aside all and any Asian influences in my life if it meant a chance to finally be the One and not the Other. Whatever ~*aZn PrIdE*~ I had was reactionary, a means of covering up my intense desire to escape my body and touch down in something that required less work for existence.

For whatever reason, this made puberty difficult. My mother’s eyes must’ve seen the back of her head every time I begged her for the latest trendy token of social acceptance: in my closet went Limited Too and Aeropostale and PacSun and Forever 21, as though by slipping on embroidered denim and printed t-shirts, I could somehow punch my ticket into small town aristocracy. But I wasn’t alone in the desperate quest for popular acceptance, and it wasn’t as though I was going to slip on a qi pao and head to school either. My father bemoaned my demands for cooler, pricier garb, but in the end, neither he nor my mother were immune to the allure of Western status symbols; when Louis Vuitton handbags came in vogue, he dutifully bought all of the women in the family fakes.

And then there were the boys. White boys scared me and bullied my friends, so I spent the years of my secondary education pining over my Asian-American friends — since everyone was taller than I was/am, I literally looked up to all of the affable, understanding, not-white guys in my life. They bore the brunt of their own stereotypes, so they would surely pay attention to oily, lumbering me?! Imagine my surprise, to learn that boys were colorblind when it came to how lithe and winsome they preferred their romantic and sexual marks . . . how just because our families ate the same thing come dinnertime didn’t mean that they would answer my affections. Puberty came and went, but the introduction of sex into the notion of full racial unity, as is the case across all colors and creeds, all but ensured its dissolution.

The twin jokes of yellow fever and Asian male emasculation dovetail into a cultural hot potato, but who is to blame for the hypersexualization of Asia’s women and the pervasive desexualization of its men? Both stereotypes have roots in Western imperialist history and the model minority myth, but it’s not as though Asian cultures don’t have their own traditional gender roles at work. And while Asian men at least have history validating their importance and giving them visibility, my sisters and I are left to navigate the labyrinth of female sexual expectations blindly on Challenge Mode.

I look at Huang and the tone he adopts in Fresh Off the Boat: he’s combative, he’s non-apologetic, and he’s full of a righteous male rage that strikes back directly at the stereotype of the neutered Asian man. It’s that same rage that fuels Angry Asian Man and demands the dismantling of model minority-ness; at least in Huang’s case, it’s also a direct adoption of black maleness, which he cops to over and over again in his explanation and defense of his background. Hip-hop, for a non-white boy on the cusp of puberty, spoke directly to that outsider alienation, even if the genre and its culture were eventually folded into and created their own mainstream narrative.

Huang is certainly reaping the benefits of that outspokenness, though there is a vocal critique against this exact kind of cross-cultural appropriation, as it still distills blackness into its cultural trappings. But even if you were to just accept all that at face value, following that mold, where are the Angry Asian Women? Why is the first Asian-American network sitcom in 20 years fixed solely upon male otherness? (Though the lone woman in the main cast, Constance Wu, deserves all the credit in the world for tackling the immigrant “Tiger Mother” trope without resorting to rote caricature.) Yes, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl laid the initial groundwork for Fresh Off the Boat, but why are the most nameable Asian female icons still relegated to their niche industries, whether they be fashion editors or beauty bloggers?

Maybe it has something to do with the still-raw legacy of Asian comfort women in Pacific stage military conflicts. Perhaps the Western world is still enamored by the starry-eyed, romanticized, sexualized, and completely subservient geisha (friendly reminder that Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white man). Most likely, it’s the fact that patriarchy, in its many-headed forms, is just as pervasive in non-white cultures as it is elsewhere. And, for many Asian-American girls, your porcelain-fragile self-esteem is shattered by both white people who fear and mock you and the Asian boys who try to dominate you. What is crueler? To be mocked for your pungent lunchtime meal and slanted eyes or to be deemed ugly and undesirably outspoken by your ethnic peers? What happens when all of this is happening at once? Asian male anger is rooted in oppression, but so is Asian female silence. And with all things, it is the voice that roars loudest that gets the spotlight.

My complacency with whiteness, my quest for assimilation and therefore self-acceptance, haunt me still. Would things have been better or easier if there’d been more mainstream representations of Asian-ness out there? Would things have been less frightening if I’d seen someone who looked like me tackling my problems on network TV? The only honest answer is “Maybe”; it isn’t as though The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air solved racism, or Ellen dealt the fatal blow to homophobia. But it’s not really a surprise to my current self that my favorite Disney films are Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, and it’s certainly an improvement that I feel anger instead of ambivalence, or even flat-out acceptance, when white people deem themselves gatekeepers to non-white spaces.

I am taking it up on myself to learn about Yellow Peril, to read up on the history of non-white revolutions and activist movements, to identify and call out microaggressions instead of tacitly waiting for them to pass. It’s still not comfortable for me to draw attention to and internalize/accept my otherness; the soft-spoken girl with the good grades and the downturned, slanted gaze still exists within me, as does her “cool,” “what is race/why can’t we just all get along” upgrade, but I know now what Huang realized at a much earlier age: my otherness will never go away, so instead of trying to fight it, I will fight for it.

My coming of age coincided with the beginning of the Internet age, but I wasn’t connected enough online to find my mirrors in the early digital space. Yet, within my trapped discontent, glimmers of the person I’d become began to shine, starting with the realization that a lot of what I’d experienced just wasn’t in my control. I couldn’t help the culture I was born into, just as I can’t help the culture I exist in now. So while it’s a drop in a very vast ocean and a story generally divorced from my own, Fresh Off the Boat deserves its mainstream spotlight, and Huang and ABC deserve to be feted for making history. Here’s a toast to the banana story; but, it shouldn’t be the only one.

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