Bananas and Me

What comes to mind when you think of bananas?

Growing up as a Chinese who doesn’t read or write Chinese characters got me referred to as a banana myself. Simply because I have yellow skin (being a Chinese) but inside, I am practically “white” (metaphor of being a Caucasian). Yellow skin with white flesh….just like a banana!

I remember my mom telling me why she decided to send me to a national school instead of a Chinese medium school when I was a kid. You see, rasing a child in multi-racial Malaysia, parents have the choice of sending their kids to either a Chinese medium school, Tamil (Indian) medium school or a national school where the language of conduct is Malay and English.

During my mother’s schooling time in the 1960s and 1970s, Malaysia was under the British rule and going to a national school means attending all classes in English, following the British curriculum. The English-eds (English-educated), as they call it during her time were seen as the elites. The “better ones” as compared to those who attended Chinese or Tamil schools. My mother attended a Chinese school. Even so, the quality of education then was very high and my mother speaks perfect English even though she attended a Chinese school.

However, during her teens, she still used to envy the English-ed girls who ride the same school bus as hers, speaking confidently in flawless English to each other while she hung her head in silence, feeling inferior. She said she vowed to ensure her kids to be English-eds so that they could “hold their head up high”. What she didn’t realise was, during my time (1980s and 1980s), Malaysia was no longer under the British rule and national schools were conducted in the national Malay language with occasional English lessons instead. Somehow, the term “English-ed” stuck on.

And so my elder sister and I grew up as bananas. It wasn’t too bad though, I speak Cantonese as this is the language I grew up with at home. My sister is much better than I am. She taught herself how to read chinese characters by reading Chinese newspapers on her own during her free time. Amazing eh? Not me though.

My biggest regret is I can’t speak Mandarin properly and I certainly cannot read or write in Chinese characters. Although schools do offer additional and optional classes for pupils who wish to learn their mother-tongue languages, I pleaded with my mother to let me stop attending them because, “It’s too hard, ma!”

Yes, now I regret it! Fortunately, I managed to learn how to write my name in Chinese characters. To be fair, I still think Chinese characters are not easy to learn! Did you know every stroke in a character must be written in order, similar to spelling? Or else, you’ll be “drawing” characters instead of writing them.

Maybe in the near future, I should really put in some serious effort to learn up this sophisticated language that is supposed to be my mother tongue and shed off my banana image.


39 comments on “Bananas and Me

  1. Emily says:

    Couldn’t agree more.
    My dad is english -ed my mom is chinese-ed.
    A debate left dad as the winner to send me to english-ed school.
    i share the same experience of not wanting to continue with the optional class and having to regret it now #_# “

    • Tien says:

      Sighs, sometimes we donlt what’s best until its too late eh? Somehow the term “English-ed” is still stuck. But really there is no more English-ed schools. They are really Malay-ed.

  2. kimberlycun says:

    regret not paying attention in my “kelas bahasa ibunda” also. when i have kids next time i will def make sure they learn mandarin and at least 1 dialect..

    • Tien says:

      Very true Kimberly! Now I relaise why my mominsist I learn my own language. Sometimes, um most times parents does know best.

  3. D... says:

    From one banana to another, I hear you. It’s a hard language to learn. My Mother is from Venezuela, so actually the other language spoken in our house was Spanish. And I really don’t speak that too well. I’m OK with the pronunciation, but the conjugation not so great. I can understand some of it, but since I’m translating it, it’s easy to get lost. But the longer I listen the more I get it. So I guess if we keep at it we can learn these languages, right?

    • Tien says:

      Yes, practise makes perfect. Because its hard, I always lack self discipline to practise. Instead everyone else has to give in and speak to me in English if they don’t speak Cantonese and I can’t speak Mandarin.

  4. Claire says:

    Well, I was lucky because my grandmother was living with me and she used to give me informal lessons at home. I guess you can say my Mandarin language education is half-baked BUT at least I can write my own name (and a few other people’s names), read menus/signboards and the news (although it does take me longer to go thru it :P)

    It’s never too late to learn Tien. A really effective way for me was by music. Pick a singer/band you like… listen to the songs, then go match the pinyin to the characters in the lyrics!

    • Tien says:

      Oh lucky you that someone in your house meant business! Everyone spoke Cantonese in my family so I didn’t have a chance to be exposed at all. Hey at least yiu can still read and speak a little bit, better than nothing! Listening to music huh? Yup, sounds like a good plan. Not really a fan of Mando-pop though. But I am sure I could try 🙂 Any bands to recommend?

      • Claire says:

        Well it was more of a past time really… I think it started partly because I was taking POL classes when I was about 7 or 8 and she thought she could do a better job 😛 which I’m really sure she did!

        The Ipoh-side of my family speaks a lot of Cantonese and a smidge of Mandarin. The Penang-side of the family speaks a mish mash of Hokkien, Hakka and Mandarin but I really suck at it! Hahaha

        Music wise, I’ve been a bit out of touch with the Mando music scene…. For me, it helps listening to some cute guy 😛 For me – guys like Wang Lee Hom/Jay Zhou worked…

        But I must say this is really up to the individual’s thirst to learn the language because it’s really NOT easy… Good luck learning, buzz me if you need any help 🙂

        • Tien says:

          Thanks for the tip Claire! But Leehom has american english slang in his singing and Jay….well he pretty much mutters his lyrics hahaha! Anyway, I’ll give it a shot 😉

        • Claire says:

          Yeah he does… but he’s still cute to stare at while you sing along 😛

          Jay – yes he does mumble, so it really helps if you’re good at the language…. but you know what’s the best? He’s got really really fantastic lyrics….

  5. Gian Carlo says:

    I only know Bisaya (my native tongue) , Filipino or Tagalog (our national language in the Philippines) and English. I knew few words in Spanish. Very few indeed ! 😀 haha

  6. vixter2010 says:

    I recently went to an event where chinese letter writers wrote our names, it looks so hard!

  7. Michi says:

    One of my friends growing up attended Chinese school every Sunday in order to learn her mother’s native tongue. She also found it too hard and quit. It’s interesting though, I remember growing up, and all of my peers and I spoke English fluently, picking up our second languages (whatever those languages might be – Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Farsi, etc) at home, with our parents. As children, we don’t see the value of knowing another language. But as adults, we do, and can only hope that we paid enough attention to our parents!!

    In my case, I was a total coconut. 😉

    • Tien says:

      Michi, yes its most effective when spoke at home, its like a daily practise. Especially to young kids. Totally agree, sometimes we should really listen to our folks!

  8. Margie says:

    I live in an extremely multi-cultural country where English is the first language, but Caucasian isn’t the predominate race in many places. It is nice to see so many diverse people be able to communicate because they have a shared language, regardless of what that language is.

    • Tien says:

      Agreed Margie. The Malaysian givernment quickly made that common language the Malay language after independence from the British but kept English active as a second language while keeping optons open for Tamil and Chinese.

  9. It is supposedly the most complex language in the world to learn. I’m impressed that anyone can learn it. I took 5 years of French, 2 years of Italian, and I know very little Spanish

    • Tien says:

      Is it really Mindy? All I know that it’s really hard to remember the characters! And which stroke comes after which! Oh wow, you know French too? They have some pretty hard pronunciations too eh? I took beginner’s Spanish in uni, it was good fun and very similar to English. Don;t remember much of it now though 🙂

  10. Hannah says:

    Hey Tien
    My friend Renee Liang is a poet and she put together a collection of poems in a book called ‘Banana’ a couple of years ago. It talks about what it was like (and is like) being a ‘banana’ growing up in New Zealand. She’s NZ born, but her parents are from China. I’ll lend it to you if you like. She speaks a little Cantonese, and I don’t think she can read or write in characters either, so will totally relate!

  11. shinloo says:

    ablility to read chinese character certainly has its advantages… but i remember when i attended chinese primary school, i couldn’t speak a word of english, literally! there was this incident that i remember vividly until now… we were having english lesson in class when one of my classmates came in and told me “the teacher wants to see me” in chinese, obviously… i stood up and wanted to go to my english teacher to excuse myself so that i can go see whoever wanted to see me… but i just stood there, blankly, didn’t know how to phrase my sentence in english… my english teacher asked “what is it?” a few times and i just responded in blank stares… it was damn embarrassing 😦

  12. genn says:

    Hi Tien, I think your mum made the best choice possible for you given the limited options. If I were in her position, I would think English is more important too.

    It’s a pity that you don’t know Chinese, but at least you speak Cantonese. I think that is already more Chinese than those who spend years in school taking Chinese lessons and yet remain monolingual. Many Singaporeans are like that. I think they are more ‘banana’ than you are!

    BTW, I just want to say… you really have a nice name!

  13. Khanum says:

    Ah! language mania! Though I know my mother tongue, Urdu very well yet I am unable to write and read it with proper dialect. It’s been six years almost , all my education process has been in english. Buh what regrets me more is that i am still – unable to learn Arabic language, the language of my Holy Book!!!!
    Not to mention the fuss at workplace. They r turkish. hence m forced to take turkish classes as well. :s !!!

    good post Tien! my language wounds r fresh once again…lol

    • Tien says:

      Like what Claire said, it’s never too late to learn Pervisha! But why can;t the Turkish learn your language instead? You know, give and take. You learn a little of my language, I’ll learn a little of yours and meet in the middle 🙂 Win-win!

  14. shinyin says:

    it sucks being labeled as a banana… i hated that very much…

    • Tien says:

      Shinyin, I hated that in school too. But as I get older, somehow I felt the urge of shedding that label getting stronger. I really hope to learn Mandarin properly someday, at least to speak it properly.

  15. akenix112 says:

    Very nice article dear! Anyway, I think never too late for you to learn now! hahaha….

  16. […] Bananas and Me ( […]

  17. jgavinallan says:

    Tien…Han zi is unbelievable. Please..wo bi xu gao su ni…wo bu xi huan han zi…

    I know what you mean…when I was small, I was forced to learn a language…it is still scrambled in my head…I think it is mental.
    Your article brings back memories…just substitute the languages and it is the same.

  18. Eng. Hasan Al-Bahkali says:

    Nice blog

    Eng.Hasan Al-Bahkali

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