The Experience of a “Banana” in White America

Because, no matter how hard I try, the world will never consider me American. I may be “white on the inside” and Asian American, but on forms, on applications, in the eyes of those around me—I am Asian.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Semoi Khan

“Yellow on the outside, white on the inside! Get it? A banana!”

I had never been compared to fruit before that comment. I had always been the soccer player or the class pet or the tomboy. Never a fruit.

When I first heard it, I laughed and embraced it. Who cared? It was just a childish nickname, right? But as I’ve grown older, the name has taken on a new meaning. It’s become more demeaning. Like a dirty word. I don’t like it. Maybe because it isn’t too far from the truth.

I’ve never felt comfortable in my own skin. I’ve always felt out of place, like I am some sort of anomaly that simply doesn’t belong. Like I’m not a member of some exclusive little club that my white or Asian peers were automatically granted membership to.

My parents recognized this discomfort. Their solution was to send me to an elementary school with a dual language Mandarin program in the hopes that I’d “connect” to the Asian culture which I had so ignorantly disregarded for my entire childhood. The student population at my new school was 75 percent Asian and primarily low income—a complete change from the small private school which I had grown so accustomed to. The goal was to learn more about my Chinese culture and the world outside the little bubble I’d occupied for so long. Their hopes were dashed by the first day. It was too late.

I grew up completely surrounded by white affluence: second homes, nannies, the “urge to splurge”—as one of my childhood friends so aptly termed the seemingly endless spending of the rich—and comfort. In these respects, I was by no means an outsider. I had two Ivy League-educated parents, took bi-annual vacations overseas, and went skiing for the majority of the winter. But I looked different and I never forgot that.

In elementary school, a kid I was playing with at the local playground asked me why I was using the swingset instead of farming rice in China with those “funny little hats.” I’d never been to China.

In my fifth grade math class, one of my teachers told me I was failing my race for doing poorly on a test. She asked why I was performing so badly, since “all Asians are math whizzes.” I hate math.

In seventh grade, at a sleepaway camp, I was paraded in front of the camp cameraman in an effort to make the camp appear more “diverse.” I was in almost every single photo on the organization’s website—playing soccer, eating at the dining hall, talking to other campers. I was a circus animal, an exotic creature for other people to “ooh” and “ah” at. I cried myself to sleep on the first night and never went back.

A few years ago, while eating at an Asian restaurant, one of my relatives jokingly called me a “fake Asian” because I couldn’t use my chopsticks properly and didn’t eat any dumplings. I hate dumplings.

I’ve never been able to fully accept my own Chinese culture—I’ve grown up too sheltered from anything remotely Asian. My family barely celebrates Chinese holidays, and my mother’s Mandarin is so broken that even non-native speakers wince when they hear her. In fact, my family was so different from any typical Asian American family that I used to get asked if I was adopted when I was younger. People would be so surprised to learn I spoke perfect English and my parents worked in offices that they’d immediately look for some sort of explanation, as if my Americanism made me some sort of rare bird. They’d start asking questions: How is your English so good? Were you born here? What do your parents do? Where are you really from?

The questions haven’t stopped; I still get them occasionally. They’ve grown to be so irritating that I considered designing a shirt with the answers to commonly asked questions to wear when I go out. I simply don’t understand what is so difficult about understanding that I am American. America is comprised of people from every possible background, and that diversity is what makes this such a beautiful place. It’s supposed to be a big mosaic where everybody comes together and creates something larger than themselves while still maintaining their individuality. That’s the point. So, of course I’m American. And if I’m not American, then who is?

For most of my life, I’ve been ashamed of feeling different and having to answer questions about my identity. I’ve tried to distance myself from the Chinese culture that so many of my peers proudly embrace. I’ve only recently begun to accept that being Chinese is a permanent part of my identity—whether I like it or not. Because, no matter how hard I try, the world will never consider me truly “American.” I may be “white on the inside” and Asian American, but on forms, on applications, in the eyes of those around me—I am Asian. Just Asian.

In the age of the coronavirus, however, things have become more complex. American race relations have reached a boiling point, with the #BLM movement gaining traction nationwide following George Floyd’s murder and the “Chinese virus” claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. In these racially charged and uncertain times, it’s been difficult to reconcile my American identity with my Chinese one. But I’m still learning. Maybe I am a banana.