Confessions of a Banana
By Kristin Penaskovic.
"I don’t want you to braid my hair today, Mom," I always said, and she’d simply shrug her shoulders and put away the rubber bands. She said nothing, and yet I could see in her eyes her amusement with her eight-year-old daughter who wanted to swing her long, luxurious black hair through the halls of West Elementary School. How was this mother to know that what she thought was schoolgirl vanity was in actuality a very real, very heartbreaking manifestation of self-contempt? How was this mother to know that when her eight-year-old daughter walked through the halls of her tiny school, she swung that long, luxuriant hair around her shoulders…to carefully hide her bent, Oriental face?
I look back on my childhood, and it is this distressing memory, more than anything else, which terrifies me. "I am normal, I am like everyone else," I want to scream, and yet how can this be true if, as a child, I was ashamed of my own face? Self-contempt is such a hateful concept, and yet it seems that throughout my life I have unknowingly been mired in its grip, floundering helplessly and somehow slowly sinking. From where did this feeling of despair at being Oriental emerge, and exactly what does it mean in my life? These are questions which I have only recently begun to ask, hard questions which require tough answers, and yet I know that only in the asking of these questions can I even begin to live a life filled with pride in myself, and in my East Asian heritage.
I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and was immediately placed into foster care until I was seven months old. At that time, I made the journey across the Pacific Ocean to the welcoming arms of my adoptive parents, white Catholics of Polish-Irish backgrounds, and my beautiful, blonde sister, two months younger than me and also adopted. We lived in a close-knit neighborhood, and I was the only Oriental, indeed the only minority, to ever call that place "home." In those early years, I was blissfully ignorant of all the ramifications which my slanted eyes and my yellow skin necessarily held for me, and it was only when I entered the first grade that I was forced to recognize my differences from my other little friends.
"Chinese, Japanese, Chinese…" the little delinquents of the school would call out to me in a singsong voice, imitating what they thought to be the Chinese language. My face would crimson with humiliation, and I would watch helplessly as my little white friends shrunk away from me in embarrassment. We never talked about such episodes; ignoring the name-callers always seemed much easier. And yet how can an eight-year-old soul ease the pain and anger she feels at such times? It is impossible. Hence, the self-contempt and the shield of black hair.
What exactly did I feel during those times when my cruel tormentors cornered me in an empty bathroom or deserted stairwell? I can’t recall clearly, but I remember angrily wanting to point out their ignorance by yelling, "I AM KOREAN, NOT CHINESE! " Perhaps that was the first sign of racial pride apparent in my behavior, though I doubt it. Rather, I see that exclamation as more of a shout with postscript: "I am Korean but, God, do I wish I were white!" To me, whiteness was the embodiment of everything good, everything pure. Who was always the good guy in the cartoons I watched after school? Why, the man in the white cowboy hat, of course. And didn’t God in Heaven wear divine robes of white, while the devil was consigned to wearing drab rags of black? Thus, my idealization of the color white stemmed from my early experiences, and I ultimately succeeded in internalizing the dominant culture’s standards and imprisoning myself in a cell of self-hatred.
According to my wise parents, and later reinforced by East Asian Studies professors and the literature they teach, the broad picture some people have of a defeated-minorities realm vs. white-people’s regime is misguided. It is a common situation for the persecuted minority to turn around to persecute others. A prime example of this situation can be found in John Okada’s No-No Boy, where a Japanese American man is confronted by a group of black men:
"Go back to Tokyo, boy."
Persecution in the drawl of the persecuted.
"Friggin’ nigger," he uttered savagely to himself…
It is apparent that mutual stereotyping and interracial tensions do, in fact, exist. What is the reason for this? Again, I must return to the issue of self-contempt. Self-contempt is not singular to the plight of Orientals, but rather may apply to any minority group. Thus, it becomes understandable when a black man or child, accustomed to the prejudices of others and wounded by the unfairness of life, focuses on another, weaker minority and strikes out in frustration. It becomes understandable, and yet, that understanding does not erase the rage I feel when a chorus of "chinkchinkchink" is rained on my head by a group of black and Hispanic schoolchildren, nor does my self-contempt for being a so-called chink disappear.
Wrapped in this self-contemptible trap which I laid for myself with the guidance of society, I arrived at college and took stock of my surroundings with surprise. Here, were hundreds of Orientals all perfectly at ease with their own backgrounds. I actually began to regret my complete rejection of my Oriental heritage, and envied the people I met who still had strong connections to East Asia. And imagine my surprise at finding a flourishing Korean American population, and at meeting actually Korean men who were extremely handsome (I had always vowed that I would only marry a white man, as I had accepted the Western view that only white men were attractive).
Furthermore, I was no longer an Oriental, but was now an Asian American! The word, Oriental, has connotations which imply something foreign, and yet how alien can someone be who has lived in the United States all of her life? The term, Asian American, on the other hand, represents a person who is not only Oriental, but American as well. There is no single Asian part to be distinguished from the American – a so-called dual personality. The Asian American soul is in fact a blend of both cultures, not like oil and water, but rather like apple pie and vanilla ice cream – complementary and completely inseparable.
This change in terminology may seem only superficial, but it exemplifies a drastic alteration in my own self-image. In calling myself Asian American, it became acceptable to be Oriental, for I found I could freely develop my interest in my Korean heritage without having to give up my American citizenship.
Previously, I had always assumed that since I was adopted and raised by a white family, my Korean face made no difference; I had a white soul, and I avoided the label, Oriental, at all costs. It was through my efforts to make the distinction that I became a strange sort of banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But once I encountered the thriving Asian American population at school, I came to realize my own special truth.
The truth is that I cannot escape my Korean heritage any more than I can avoid being a woman, for it is stamped on my soul just as surely as my slanted eyes and flat nose stamp me as an Asian. To ignore that part of my personality is to deny that my reflection in the mirror actually exists, and to deny that my reflection is indeed a beautiful on. With the powerful tool of hindsight, I understand that my reactions to my Asian heritage, though not admirable, were a necessary step in my own journey toward self-acceptance. And so, as I take my Korean language classes and read Asian American literature, hoping to recognize myself in others’ words, the self-contempt which used to be such an integral and unconscious part of my nature slowly seeps away.