The daughter of a Chinese father and white mother, the politically correct term for me is Eurasian American. Growing up some of the Asian girls at school labeled me white-washed, while some of the white girls refused to believe my blonde haired, blue-eyed mother conceived me. The strangest title I earned? Banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
The first time I heard the term banana it offended me. The fact that the Chinese man who called me a banana tried to follow up with “Oh, but you are a pretty banana” only fueled my anger as if a compliment made up for the diminishing nickname.
My understanding of the term banana evolved when I came across Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club during my American Literature class in high school. Mr. Smith assigned Tan’s novel during the second semester of my junior year. As I traced my fingers over the shiny red raised title on the cover, I knew this book would differ from any other I had read during my academic career.
Deep within the woven vignettes of the lives of four Chinese mothers and their American raised daughters, I found a sense of self-understanding. This book was about me. Sitting at the table with the women of the Joy Luck Club I recognized the criticisms, concerns and coaxing of the matriarchs on my Chinese side. Banging away at the piano with Jing-Mei Woo, I recalled my own anxiety at piano competitions at the age of nine. Forced to flee to Shanghai from the Japanese invasion, Suyuan’s plight echoed my own family’s story of survival retold over and over at family reunions. And through The Joy Luck Club, I grew to understand the conflicts between first and second generation Chinese living in America, including the challenges of growing up Eurasian American.
Only five novels have survived the many moves since my high school graduation, The Joy Luck Club among them. The pages yellowed and browned with age, I can no longer see the highlighted passages, which have faded away with time. However, as I flip through my old copy, I find a single passage underlined in blue ink on the second to last page: “And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go.”
Others labeled and shaped my identity in my youth, whereas I began to define myself through literature and history classes in the 90’s at a time when Asians first gained more presence in American Literature, television, film and other media. Chinese writers like Amy Tan, Lisa See, Adeline Yeh Mah and Dai Sijie helped me to understand myself through their works.
Now as a writer of poetry and memoir, bits of my Chinese culture pop up in the most unexpected of places. Around 6,000 words into my novel for National Novel Writing Month, I discovered my protagonist was Chinese. And I had to let go of trying to control and quash that part of her identity, for it seems to me that in every work of fiction there are kernels of truth woven throughout the text. The further I delve into the world of writing, the closer I come to finding my own voice as a writer, which includes who I am today – a banana. How grateful I am for the opportunity many moons ago to read a book that started this journey of self-discovery.