10 Sep 2018

'Bananas' split over their cultural identity

From Voices, 7:00 am on 10 September 2018

Thanks to recent Hollywood films like Crazy Rich Asians, "bananas" are back in the spotlight. But what does it mean to be white on the inside and yellow on the outside?

Members of the Rice Movement for young Asian New Zealand Christians.

Members of the Rice Movement for young Asian New Zealand Christians. Photo: RNZ/Jessie Chiang

My name is Jessie Chiang and I'm a banana.

What does that mean?

Well, it means I'm white on the inside but yellow on the outside.

Being a banana is something that Chinese, Japanese and Koreans might find funny, but peel back the surface and you'll find people who struggle with who they are.

Thanks to Hollywood and recent films like Crazy Rich Asians, bananas and their identity are back in the spotlight.

Elim Chen was born in Taiwan but grew up here in New Zealand.

She is a part of the RICE movement, which aims to share the Christian faith with Asian teenagers in Auckland and Australia.

But when she first joined the group six months ago, she wasn't at ease.

Elim Chen.

Elim Chen. Photo: RNZ/Jessie Chiang

"I felt like such a foreigner, even though skin wise...everything about me was exactly the same as them but because I just never associated with so many Asians before, for me it was a very weird feeling," Elim said.

Being a banana is something she is familiar with.

Going through school, Elim didn't have many Asian friends.

"I think my mum used to joke every now and then 'oh it would be nice if you brought an Asian friend home'," she said.

"[So] when I was in college there was a big, big group of Asians where they would all hang out and I thought I would go hard or go home and I [went] and said hi."

"Unfortunately, I got rejected."

Like Elim, Brian Yeom was brought up in New Zealand, but his parents are from South Korea.

This medical student is reluctant to call himself a banana.

"In general I don't really like being called certain terms but it does describe me accurately I guess," he said.

"I am Korean, but I didn't really have a Korean upbringing outside my family house."

Brian Yeom.

Brian Yeom. Photo: RNZ/Jessie Chiang

In the last census in 2013, there were more than 500,000 Asians living in New Zealand.

How many of those are bananas is hard to pin down.

But banana or not, the number of Asians in the country is set to grow.

Current projections show that in 20 years, the Asian population will reach up to 1.4 million, with one in three Aucklanders identifying with an Asian ethnicity.

For Brian though, in areas outside of Auckland, there's a lack of diversity.

Sometimes it can be lonely as a banana.

"Hamilton, I find is a different story...a lot of the people we see at work are predominantly Kiwi, just classic New Zealand European or Māori patients, not a lot of Asians," he said.

Kai Luey is the chairman of the Auckland Chinese Community Centre.

He's organised the last five Going Bananas conferences to help Chinese people struggling with their identity.

Kai Luey.

Kai Luey. Photo: RNZ/Jessie Chiang

The idea for them came up after Kai went to another conference about Chinese that, he says, did not do the job.

"It was quite tedious and drawn out...it had some serious content there but if you want to attract a largish audience you don't have it like an academic type conference," he said.

So in 2005, they had the first gathering for bananas which hundreds of people attended.

The last one was four years ago and Kai says there is still a need for them, although nothing has been planned so far.

"There should be different nuances coming into it, different ideas," he said.

"The only way to develop [the conferences] is to get new ideas coming through but it's time to step aside and let someone else do it."

And the time is ripe for bananas.

The film Crazy Rich Asians topped the box office in the United States and is now out in New Zealand.

It follows an Asian-American woman who struggles to relate to her boyfriend's extremely wealthy and extremely traditional Asian family.

The film has been hailed as historic.

Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since the release of the film The Joy Luck Club in 1993.

People have begun asking why it took so long to have more Asian faces in films - not just in martial art movies or Disney animations like Mulan.

While there has been criticism about its focus on just east Asians, it has resonated with bananas around the world, including Brian.

"I'm not a crazy rich Asian, I'm a very poor Asian but from what I understand it's...about growing up [as an] American-Asian,"

"I'm not American-Asian but it's still very much the same themes."

Those themes are about walking in two worlds and not really belonging in either - something all too familiar to Elim.

"As a banana, yes you're born and raised here but there are times where people still view you as a foreigner," she said.

"It's been really awesome just to see that they can get their voice out there which gives me the confidence that...people might actually listen up a bit more."

And for Elim, seeing bananas on the big screen and finally being surrounded with other Asians is something she was missing.

Speaking to her friends at RICE, she became emotional.

"It's been so cool just to connect with you guys...it's been a crazy journey and it's been awesome," she said.

"This was something that I needed."