The bananas in Malaysia is a unique type of people found only in Malaysia and in perhaps too in Singapore. They are named because of their inherent appearance; yellow on the outside, white on the inside. That means they look like a typical Chinese (yellow) on the outside, but on the inside they are exactly like a mat salleh, or Caucasian. (As opposed to a coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside, the Indian equivalent). They are ethnic chinese who grew up on English-speaking environments, be it from their parents or education system. But at the same time, they still receive strong influence from their traditionally strong Chinese background, especially their grandparents who instill within them the values of seeing life from a china-man.
The root of the banana chinese in Malaysia goes all the way back to the formation of the Federation of Malay States in the early 20th century. At that time, life as a migrant chinese coming from Mainland China was tough, earning a meagre living scrapping off the lavishness of the British, being their servant, cook and coolie in tin mines. To them, the British were highly revered upon, so it is natural that they encouraged their school-going children to learn up the English language as much as they can, in the blind faith that they may enjoy good life in the future.
My paternal grandfather came from Panyu District, Guangzhou, China with his elder brother and mother during that time too, looking for better life here in Kampar, the mining centre of Perak. Stories were quite disparate after this point, but I think it was time for them to go back to China after earning enough here in Malaya. However his mother only had enough money to buy two tickets back to China. Guess who got left in Malaya alone?
My father still received typical chinese education. However he is considered quite well educated, having completed his Form 5 (None of his other siblings did as good). My mother only completed Form 3. My parents realised that having proper education is the key to leaving this life of suffering, of having to labour from dusk to dawn. And so all 4 of us
suffered received education in Anglican Chinese school, a.k.a. English school disguised as National School. In those times, in the 70s to the late 80s, these schools has just been converted to Sekolah Kebangsaan or National School, but only in name-sake and official language medium. Throughout my education years we conversed heavily in English. At least I did, especially during my Lower and Upper Six education in St Michael’s Ipoh, another Anglican school.
Yours truly is an unabashedly typical banana. I do not receive direct English medium education unlike my forefathers, but being with a Chindian best-friend allowed me to absorb his English language (pity he couldn’t absorb my Cantonese). I started listening to English radio stations, watching English movies and TV series, and most importantly I picked up reading. I can attribute reading as the key that opened up the door to a world of knowledge written in English. Technical and computer knowledge were written in English, and when the internet picked up, so did my knowledge of the world around me.
English came easy for me, but learning another language (Mandarin for example) was dreadful! I made all sorts of excuse not to attend Chinese lesson classes. I came close to failing that class (or maybe I did?).
There was one thing tough that drives me to learn up chinese, and that’s my love of singing Canto-pop songs! And the fact that most of my chinese friends in USM conversed in Mandarin. Nowadays whenever I meet a chinese youngster these days, chances are, they will talk to you in Mandarin, even in KL!
But bananas in Malaysia are a dying breed. Why is that? That’s because no Chinese ever sends their children to English (or more accurately, Sekolah Kebangsaan) schools anymore. These schools that were once the glory of the English medium in Malaysia is now devoid of any signs of English. The language is gone, the way of life is gone (as the last Brother Director of St Michael passed away early this year). All that is left is the broken education system ravaged by our flip-flopping, defective Malaysian Education Ministry, which ironically was once helmed by the infamous Najib Razak. Go on, ask any of your Malaysian Chinese friends now who has a school-going child(ren). Which school are they enrolled in now? Chances are, over 90% of them are in Chinese medium school. It’s not by coincidence, but a matter of choice.
Banana chinese has a special trait within them, is that they are well-versed in the ways of the world (since the de-facto language of technology is English), but at they same time still very much grounded in their strong Asian values. They are also very creative bunch of people, content creator (Dan Khoo, JinnyBoy), martial artist (Datok Michelle Yeoh), singer (Elizabeth Tan, even Zee Avi has a chinese name, 季小薇, so I guess she’s a bit of a half) etc. They represent the best of both worlds, east and west, a compromise, but at the same time can also be a curse to them. In family gatherings, the bananas who can’t speak a word of their native Chinese language (not even Cantonese or Hokkien, the two most common dialects in Malaysia excluding Mandarin) always ends up being the family joke. In karaoke with friends, they end up only singing English or Malay songs, much to the amusement of their other chinese-reading friends.
I’m expecting a barrage of flames coming in, so keep your comments coming in!