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Japan Journal

Banana, Banana, Banana

Are you a “banana”? Do you want to be one? What is a banana, anyway?

When I read Wayson Choy’s article in the Globe & Mail (July 18, 1997), entitled, “I’m a banana and proud of it,” I was once again exasperated by what seems to be a campaign by the G&M to indoctrinate Asian Canadians into a prescribed way to be “Canadian”—accept your colour difference (you can’t do anything about that), but, at heart, be Anglo-Canadian, white, at least, as if Asian Canadian, isn’t good enough.

I grew up in predominately white communities. But instead of idealizing what-it-is-to-be-white and becoming an approximation of that, I’ve chosen a place somewhere on the fringes. Remarkably some lucky Nikkei report no experiences of racism while growing up. These were a formative part of my experience that made me wary of being lumped in the self-labelled bananas of Canada.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing or, maybe, even Toronto, but I’ve always thought “banana”, like “Oreo” or “apple”, was a pejorative term, never an “affectionate nickname”. I seriously doubt if First Nations people or African Canadians freely accept labels like “apple” and “Oreo” with such glee as Wayson did “banana”. The implication of the prior two disparaging terms is the person is a sell-out (i.e. allegiance) to their respective ethnic communities. I’ve always considered banana to be a similar term.

Unlike Wayson or journalist Jan Wong who wrote a recent piece in the G&M towing a similar political line, my upbringing was stereotypically Canadian in many ways. There were no Japantowns, so I learned to play ice hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, basketball in Georgetown; I was pretty good at sports and a decent student. I grew up in an all white environment and culture where the only other Asians were my relatives; the first Asians I went to school with were at university.

When I went to school, we were taught to have respect for each other’s various cultural backgrounds. My best friends were Jewish, British, Ukrainian, Greek, and Irish Canadians. I didn’t even know a non-white person until university. Even still, growing up I always felt an affinity with non-white Canadians since we shared similar experiences. I read the stories of jazz singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and writer James Baldwin and empathized. I also understood the privileges of being white.

My friends would tell me “you don’t seem Japanese” (whatever that meant), probably due to my outgoing character and their stereotypical image of what was Japanese. Although I’ve even been told that I don’t look very Japanese, it never stopped the racial slurs routinely passed my way. Truly, the sight of a pick-up truck, dogs in the back and driver with a baseball cap puts me on an instant guard. The red-neck in a suit is, of course, worse.

Even on my last trip to Thailand, a white guy passing me on an escalator, suspecting I was from Japan no doubt, called me a “f------ nip” with a grin, looking me dead in the eye. Racist attacks like this present harsh truths about the danger of thinking we are essentially white. Our ethnic characterizations are a powerful and undeniable symbol of who we are, a threatening one for others. I’m always wary.

I am quite happy about being a Nikkei and take offense at the term “banana”; even with the separation of some generations from Japan, Nikkei should be allowed to be as Japanese, or not, as they like; tolerance for difference is what the Canadian mosaic is all about, isn’t it?

I now live in Japan, a country where the myth of the white ideal is worshipped by many. The youth face a cultural dilemma, growing up in many similar ways as suburban Canadian kids, hanging out at “Mac-do,” listening to Oasis and the Spice Girls, watching Hollywood movies, wearing elevator shoes to achieve xena long-leggedness, even dyeing their hair various shades of brown and blond, now fashionable among young women and men, to more effectively affect the white American ideal. Ask most Homestay students and visitors to Canada what their idea of “Canadian” is and you can be sure it ain’t non-white.

In the west though, culture is becoming more of personal choice; like fashion, wearing ethnic clothes and affecting ethnic ways, has been hip for some time. I have always paid a high price for my ethnicity, so I do make a clear distinction between myself and the European Japanophile, who often seem oddly voyeuristic; perhaps no more than the Nikkei in Japan who are grappling for a sense of their identity, I suppose. Our family histories link us to Japan regardless of the cultural muddle we now flounder in.

What does being white at the core really mean anyway? What is Japanese? What is Nikkei? I recognize that my personal history makes me a “banana” of sorts but it isn’t an identity to be idealized. Rather, I’ve come around to realizing that I’ve been a closet Asian all along.

Since my skin and Japanese features automatically set me apart from my white counterparts, to what advantage should I ignore this? Isn’t it a little like burying one’s head? Ethnicity doesn’t define one entirely but it is a step in the process, especially in a white dominated society.

Those who are not white don’t do ourselves a service by accepting pejoratives such as “banana” since it signals an acceptance of a marginal place that is no longer even ethnic.

The issue of cultural ambiguity is especially relevant for the Nikkei community which has enjoyed great success in assimilating into the mainstream. Most other ethnic groups seem more comfortable about who they are; young Nikkei, perhaps, don’t often understand the cultural alternatives.

Being a banana does not satisfy the vision I have of myself. Accepting the notion of a white cultural ideal cuts me off at the roots and attempts to graft me to something I don’t feel entirely a welcome part of. As Asians, some of us have to come to terms with who we are culturally before we can make personal breakthroughs beyond that.

Culture is not something which we can simply let “be” in a world that’s becoming more and more monocultural. You really do have to fight for your right to be ethnically, sexually, politically, individually, etc.

Wasn’t this what the Redress Movement was all about?

We may believe we are white on the inside, but historically we are not. In this respect, we’ve always been victimized. I don’t believe that blacks or Asians or First Nations People exerting their cultural identity is really what is causing the tears in the Canadian mosaic. Ugly exclusionary opinions of what-a-true-Canadian-really-is seem to be looming again.

Canadian doesn’t equal white. I get tired of drilling this fact into the heads of my Japanese students. Whole histories go flying out the window if we choose to accept this absurd notion. It was only after recognizing and beginning to cultivate my Japanese self that I’ve come to some peace about my identity. The option shouldn’t be a closed one for anyone.

Society may try to impose its idea of what should be, but what identity I choose to cultivate is mine.

*This article was originally published in the Nikkei Voice in November 1997.

© 1997 Norm Ibuki

banana Canada culture identity Japanese Canadian race racism

このシリーズについて

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.