Life as a Banana
Asian American identity
Posted Apr 05, 2017
“Banana” is a pejorative term in Asian American communities for someone who is a sellout. Asian on the outside but White on the inside.
I was a banana when I was growing up. And to some extent my Japanese American mother wanted me to be one. After being placed in United States internment camps during World War II, many Japanese Americans wanted their children to assimilate. Assimilation to mainstream culture was a way of blending in and not being seen as foreign. Not being foreign might prevent us from being rounded up again in the future.
Assimilation for Japanese Americans meant having an American first name. My Japanese American friends had names like John, David, Gary, Linda, Sharon, and Susan. Very few of us learned to speak Japanese. Assimilation for my mother meant marrying a White man, despite laws in many states that prohibited interracial marriage.
Because my father was White, my family could buy a house on the north side of the Ship Canal in Seattle. There were no other Asian Americans in my elementary school. Almost all the other students were White. And I saw myself as just like them. I had no Asian American identity. I was socialized to be a banana.
The results of most psychological studies indicate that assimilation is good for Asian Americans’ mental health. Mental health included self-esteem, satisfaction with life, as well as low levels of distress, depression, and anxiety. Assimilation was more strongly associated with mental health for Asian Americans than it was for Latinx Americans or African Americans. The value of assimilation for Asian Americans may be because of the greater distance between Asian American cultures and mainstream American culture. Being perceived as less foreign may result in less discrimination, as our parents hoped. So, being a banana is apparently healthy for Asian Americans. On the other hand, connections with Asian cultures were not associated with mental health in these studies.
Why did being Asian make no difference in these studies? The mental health measures in the studies were designed for Whites. The focus was on individual mental health and not on quality of relationships with others. So, mental health for Asian Americans meant having characteristics similar to Whites. It is possible that these studies were not sensitive to the hidden benefits of being Asian in the United States.
If my life as a banana had mental health benefits, it was not a bowl of cherries. I never felt that I completely belonged in my White neighborhood. I was repeatedly reminded that I was not White. “Where are you from?” or “what are you?” were common questions. My friendships in my White community were short-lived. Friendships were at best fluid and at worst fickle.
In contrast, my Asian American friends made me feel like I did belong. As I grew older, friendships with Asian Americans became deeper and more lasting. Some of my childhood Asian American friends are still my friends as an adult. Unlike my mother, I even married a Japanese American. Being part of an Asian American community became central to my identity.
Although I was socialized to be a banana, I grew into a yuzu fruit. Yuzu is yellow inside and out and is from Asia. It is also the only citrus fruit that can grow outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, my home.
Psychological theories indicate that the ability to thrive in more than one culture is optimal. So, expecting everyone to become the same limits everyone’s potential. Give people the opportunity to choose what they want to be:
- Or maybe even eggs – White on the outside and yellow on the inside.
Gupta, A., Leong, F., Valentine, J. C., & Canada, D. D. (2013). A meta‐analytic study: The relationship between acculturation and depression among Asian Americans. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83, 372-385. doi: 10.1111/ajop.12018
LaFromboise, T. D., Coleman, H. L. K., & Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 395-412. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.114.3.395
Yoon, E., Chang, C.T., Kim, S., Clawson, A., Cleary, S.E., Hansen, M., …Gomes, A.M. (2013). A meta-analysis of acculturation/enculturation and mental health. Journal Counseling Psychology, 60, 15-30. doi: 10.1037/a0030652