Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 8 News List


What's wrong with bananas?

The word "banana" in our time has converted from an innocent fruit name to yet another example among a host of gastronomically inspired terms we use to describe people. Like "potato queens" (Asian men who date exclusively white men), "sugar daddy" (a wealthy older man who provides for a younger partner), or simply "fruit" (obsolete late 20th-century slang for gay men) and many other contemporary terms of contempt or derision, "banana" combines stereotypes we know about food and stereotypes we have about people -- in this case, Asians who look yellow on the outside but are actually white on the inside. In using this term, we make a statement about the person who is described by that name.

In Edward Wu's letter (Letter, Aug. 3, page 8) he mentions a banana-related incident that greatly offended his sensibilities -- in broad daylight, members of the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters were using bananas to teach passersby how to use a condom. Wu describes the incident as "a sign of a lack of humility, self-respect and decency."

But while it is more amusing than shocking that somebody would take the time to write such an ill-informed, self-righteous moral tale (I generally advise people to pray or masturbate when they have too much time on their hands), what is laughable is that Wu equates the banana lessons with "imported Western values" that are threatening to undermine "the fabric of our society."

Writing from Los Angeles, Wu is certainly familiar with the usual complaint about ABCs (American-born Chinese): that they are too Americanized, that they do not respect their elders, that they do not speak Chinese and that they don't study hard enough -- they are bananas.

Wu's criticism of the sex-education demonstration in Taipei is animated by the same anxieties. Is Wu's article simply an innocuous expression of personal opinions? I think not.

For over a century, the rhetoric of Chinese values/Asian values versus Western values has been repeatedly used by untiring moral crusaders in defense of foot-binding, authoritarianism, arranged marriages, widow-burning, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. If an idea is right, it ought to be accepted on the grounds of its sound logic and not because it is either "Western" or "Chinese." By the same token, an idea or a practice should not be rejected simply because it is "Western" or "Chinese."

The argument that ideas can be said to "belong" to a certain culture has polluted much of modern political thinking. The belief that there is an essential and unchanging set of beliefs that make the Chinese people Chinese (like there is some kind of Chinese gene in your body that makes you nauseous at the mere sight of condoms on bananas, while a white person is genetically impervious to the same spectacle) is naive, not to mention racist.

And I am not so sure the idea of using bananas for sex education is a particularly Western thing. The boundaries between nations are becoming more porous, but even within the so-called "West," no belief travels uncontested among its inhabitants. Wu would probably find it useful to do some homework before bemoaning the invasion of Taiwan by "Western liberalism."

Prostitution is not "inherently illegal." It is legal in many countries in the Western and non-Western parts of the world.

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