Half-Chinese, Half-Irish, Not Quite “Banana”

Misha Barbour, half-Chinese, half-Irish American.

“Do you know what a banana is?” a colleague asked me the other day. “I’m… not sure I know how to respond to that, Andy.” He laughed. “No, no. It’s sort of a racial slur. It means ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside.’ I’m surprised you’re not familiar.”

I wasn’t. His surprise stemmed from the fact that I’m half-Chinese (a banana split?) as, by coincidence, is he. The term “banana” is generally used to describe American-born Chinese (ABCs) who by all appearances are Asian but are all-American in life. On this particular work day, it prompted musings and a discourse over our mixed bag of heritage.

“Do you feel more Chinese?” he asked, putting the question to himself, “or American? Neither? Does one automatically feel more Western if they’re raised in the United States?” All good questions. And actually, questions I’d asked of myself years prior to setting foot on Shanghai soil.

My childhood was as American as they come. Picket fences, apple pies (cooled on the counter, not the sill). Sitcom and toy indulgences, jean shorts cut high and frayed. Hop-scotch at recess, the ice cream man. Proms, plays, soccer games (my town’s substitute for football). Post-grad road trips ’round the country. Americana at its best.

But there were subtle differences. Friends who were baptized had been so in a local church, not as I had, in Taiwan. Required raids on my mother’s closet produced heartbreakingly fine cheongsams in addition to funky sweaters. Wonton-making. Drawers filled with chopsticks alongside china. Strategic scrolls along random walls – lush calligraphy proffering I-knew-not-what.

I was never called a yellow fruit, no, but was always seen as slightly different. I bore the pudge and pimples symptomatic of teendom, but also a bridge-less nose and “strange”ly-shaped eyes. Parents and comrades urged me to celebrate these quirks. Find them unique instead of ugly. But, less-supportive counterparts (boys), each with their jibes and jabs, seemed set on branding me the latter. (My therapist’s bill is in the mail.)

Surface aside, I was confused as to where I fit. Freshman year I joined the local Sewickley Asian Youth group (SAY!) in an effort to find my place. Suddenly, I went from being the most Asian person in the room to, by far, the very least. No less confusing, no.

College apps and doctor’s forms never helped much with the cause, always leaving me with “Other” as the only box to check. Two weddings and one funeral saw my four, full-blooded cousins chatting easily with our gran, while I enjoyed only hugs and kisses, having never learned Chinese.

In many ways, college was a cool compress for what had been a blazing summer. Not only was I now surrounded by every race imaginable, but also by so many others who were “Other.” Irish tinged with Indian, African-American mixed with Scot. This cornucopia brought my brethren, and with them, a query that finds me to this day.

“So, what are you?”

The first nine times I heard the question I struggled to find response. A freshman? A voice major? Salad enthusiast? Eggplant avoider? “No, what’s your nationality? Like, where are you from?” Oh.

The word choice seemed awfully curious for a question as plain as that. And, given my prior experience, I always took it to mean more. I wasn’t alone.

“It’s so annoying and it happens all the time,” a friend (Indian/Japanese) muttered years ago, peering into a brownstone’s fridge. “I would never walk up to a white person and say, ‘Hey man. What are you?’ But because we look different -not white, not black, not yellow- it seems alright to ask. Like it’s a compliment. But it’s not.”

I never took it quite the same. I recognized it was often meant to be just that, an appreciation of something new. But for those of us who’d always hovered between two cultures, were lightly teased in youth for that which now makes us unique, had struggled to find the middle between two races’ inherent traits – it is more complicated than it seems.

For the most part, living in China hasn’t simplified things much. Here, I’m never asked that age-old question simply because it’s assumed that I am “white.” Mention of my Chinese half usually results in shock waves and utter disbelief. “No! But you’re SO white!” True, my current pallor does demand that a role in “Twilight” receive some thought. But it’s not the lack of melatonin to which my new neighbors refer.

Turns out that thirty years in America (save an odd summer here and there) have left me profoundly – American. Not in the stereotypical manner of too-loud voices, absent humility, or constant fast-food consumption. But in that I am optimistic, mostly confident, believe my opinions should be heard. And though the past few years have made it less easy than it once was, I am happy for all that upbringing and brandish my passport with only pride.

And yet this, coupled once again, with being the least Asian in the room, leaves me still mostly undefined. I don’t speak Chinese (yet) but have an entire half of family where English is not the norm. I swing a chopstick deftly but have yet to produce anything tasty from the wok. My appearance raises that old question in one country and flat confusion in the next. I’m crap at accepting compliments (China) but a mean thrower of verbal barbs (States).

For now, I’ve accepted the confusion. In an age where I can look no further than my president for an example of multi-race, it’s possible that I will soon become the “norm,” asking the blue-eyed, “So, where’re you from?” And, in the meantime, I’ve finally settled on an answer to that question, should I be asked it yet again. A question for a question- “Well, let’s see. How much time you got?” – is now my standard, set reply.

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  • anon

    Nicely written, and the Twilight joke made me snort.

  • Jay K.

    god halfies are just plain hot or plain ugly, in this case hot.

    seriously the bell curve theory is always inversed with halfies.

  • Capt. WED

    U shuld hookup with that StuffEurasianMalesLike guy. LOL.

  • Eamon

    Nice post!

    I’m half Irish, half chinese too! I’d have to say that I definitely feel more Irish..especially since I’ve spent most my life here. I really like the fact that I am the most/least asian person in the room sometimes when im in Ireland/China. I’d hate the be the same as everyone else…

    • Thanks, Eamon! Always happy to know another “half-sy.” Particularly one of the Chinese/Irish variety. Great combo. ;)

      I agree with you. Since entering the old age of adulthood, I’ve come to see my “differences” as wholly positive and appreciate being the least/most at different times. At least it keeps things interesting.

    • anon

      Do half-Chinese leprechauns have pots of gold as well? Hidden at the end of the rainbow?

  • kodabar

    My wife’s from Taiwan and she now lives in Britain. She has British citizenship. If you ask her, she will say she’s Chinese. Not Taiwanese, not British but Chinese. For her, Han ethnicity outweighs everything else.

    In your case, you were raised in America, think and act like an American, don’t speak any Chinese languages. Guess what? You’re American. You’re of Chinese ethnicity, but you’re American.

    When people ask where you’re from or what ethnicity you are, there’s no need to be offended (if you take offensive at that, you’re going to get offended an awful lot). People are asking you because you’re different and they’re interested. You don’t walk up to white people in America and ask where they’re from because you already know. They’re white and they’re living in America? It’s because they’re American. Your ethnicity is novel enough to be worthy of interest.

    I’m not Chinese. I’m Scottish. And I’m very pale with red hair. When people find out I’m Scottish they want to see my kilt, ask about the Loch Ness monster and all that stuff. The country I’m from is a tourist curiosity.

    What’s particularly funny for Scottish people are Americans that claim they’re part-Scottish. They’re not. One of their ancestors from several generations back was from Scotland, but that doesn’t make them Scottish at all. What’s really funny is the stuff that American “Scottish” people to to celebrate their heritage. It’s the most embarrassing tourist-class rubbish. No one who’s actually Scottish does any of that stuff.

    Isn’t it interesting that white Americans constantly struggle to reinvent themselves as being part-something-else? Being a white American means having no strong cultural identity, so they’re desperate to give themselves some kind of cultural heritage to give them a more exotic identity.

    It’s okay to be American. It’s okay to have Chinese ancestry. Just learn to like it or you’ll be giving yourself a hard time over nothing. When you’re fifty you’ll look back on this and laugh.

    But the most damning thing of all? You live in China and you don’t speak Chinese? Yup, you’re American alright. Anyone else learns the language.

    • Well said, kodabar. You make interesting points, some of which I had anticipated in posting this.

      Firstly, I agree that a number of Americans exaggerate any international heritage they may have (“Jersey Shore” might not be half as entertaining/horrifying if they didn’t.) I, however, certainly can understand why.

      From a historical perspective, America is an infant when compared to other countries. Our “melting pot” nature is celebrated (as it should be) but, on the flip-side, it is this nature that also leaves individual Americans searching for a broader identity. It’s not about finding something “more exotic.” It’s about finding a deeper connection, a longer-lasting group to which they belong. Real ancestry on which they can hang their hat.

      In this sense, America is akin to an (occasionally) over privileged orphan. You are fortunate to have such tangible, far-reaching heritage, culture, and ancestry at your fingertips (though the Loch Ness and kilt presumptions did make me laugh).

      Secondly, I don’t take offense to anyone acquiring after my nationality (I said in the post that I have friends who do). I agree with you that this is simply a curiosity. The only issue I ever have is with its occasional delivery.” Possibly semantics, but “what are you?” just seems too odd a question.

      Lastly, I came to China for many reasons, most significant among them to learn Mandarin. That was nearly one year ago. Now, after 3 hours of lessons a day, five days a week, I would label myself as “conversational.”

      I say in the post that “I don’t speak Chinese (yet)” because, well, I suppose I feel one should be fully fluent before making such a claim (particularly in so broad a forum). I may be, I may not, but I’ll continue to say I am “learning” until I feel otherwise.

      So, maybe we can agree on this: that if claiming to be anything other than American is an overstatement, then the understating of my proficiency, if indeed I am, is my Asian side a-showing.

    • Joy

      In regards to your wife’s comment. The term Taiwanese didn’t become a prominent way of labeling oneself until Taiwan’s claim as a independent country which was still fairly recent. It’s as if Ohio broke from USA and named itself a separate country, the people there would still share the same culture, heritage and genetics as the rest of the country. Well, maybe America’s a bad example since China’s very homogenous. It would be like saying whether your north or south korean. There’s no genetic difference. Especially, if your wife grew up with the idea of being Chinese before the partition. And Han is the primary ethnic group there, but lots of folks are a bit “mixed” even if they don’t look it. I’m Han and Manchurian and O how I really try to flaunt that whenever I get a chance just to have some interesting factors about myself to hang onto. I think most white Americans do rant off a list of their ethnic heritage as pride in something they really know nothing about just to hand onto something unique about themselves. And it’s ok, it’s good to be proud of something you have as long as you really try to understand it. And your right, many Americans who can’t even trace back to when their ancestors were immigrants just hook onto the stereotypes of cultures they label themselves with. Worst is when I hear someone say they’re this and this and this and Jewish. Jewish is not a ethnicity! A lot of people may pass this religion down the generations but still a Yemenite Jew is not the same as a Hungarian Jew or a Ethiopian Jew or a East Asian Jew. Sorry I’m ranting, but I just wanted to elaborate on what you said.

  • Yet another half-sie, yet another “I’m me, because I’m me, dammit” post, yet another soul rejected from the collective consciousness that is China.

    “Diaspora” is going to be one HUGE orphanage.

    Song of the Article (from Little Orphan Annie”)

  • Hendra

    Ha ha.. I like your closing ‘question for a question’ bit. I think I’ll probably use it someday… :)

    I can relate to some extent as I’m a ‘mixed’ as well. I had similar experiences when I was much younger. It has stopped affecting me too much as I grow older though.

    Anyway, I wish you all the best in the future. No need to heed any of these rude questions and make the best just by being yourself.

    Oh yeah. I don’t like eggplants too… :)

    • anon

      Yeah, its disgusting, a gooey slimey mess in your mouth.


    • Thanks, Hendra. Glad you can relate (especially to my hatred of eggplants!) and I greatly appreciate the well-wishes. All the same to you.

  • i’m full chinese, but grew up >90% of my life in the US, and when i go back i get treated as a foreigner. family members are not subtle at all when making assumptions about me.

  • mike

    I know exactly how you feel, being half Chinese and half Portuguese.

    Its feels good to know I’m not the only one that feels this way.

    • Thanks, Mike. Equally good to hear that you can relate. Cheers.

  • Angela

    Thank you for talking about the “what are you” question. I HATE that question – People only believe me if I lie, anyway. I’m mostly Chinese (Han and Hakka) with a little bit of Taiwanese Aboriginal and Dutch, but it’s easiest for me to say I’m Filipina, Hispanic, or Hawaiian. Strangers will come up to me and speak in Spanish and don’t blink an eye when I reply, but any time I speak Chinese to someone who doesn’t already know me, s/he inevitably freaks out about “how good [my] Chinese is.” (It’s not, for someone who grew up speaking Chinese at home.)

    • Misha

      Thanks, Angela. Glad to hear you can relate. I’ve totally gotten the Spanish thing too! Just amusing considering how pale and (in my estimation) un-Spanish I look. Now that I’m conversational in Chinese I get some of that surprise as well. But that I’ll take. I need all the positive reinforcement I can get! Thanks again for reading.

  • Rene Donaldson

    I don’t really see the big deal about the identity. You’re a woman that’s all that matters to me. Your identity isn’t really that important.

  • Steve Puckett

    I’m a white American male with a Taiwanese wife. Well she’ll tell you that she’s Chinese. We have three children. All are brilliant and athletic and quite beautiful. They seem to have the best qualities from both my wife and I.
    Quite a perfect “new race” I believe.

    • James CoCo

      Another White supremacist with an Asian wife, extolling the virtues of half-Asian, half-White children being somehow superior to other races…

      • Zappa Frank

        And another one with an inferiority complex…

  • smitten guy

    God damn I find you attractive; not because of your race or whatever, but because of your wit and obvious intelligence. Tis a shame we will never have a chance to enjoy each others’ company.

  • David Alexander

    Great article. I’m Half-Chinese, Quarter-Irish and a Quarter Portuguese. Full blooded Canadian born and raised there and now in DC. I can relate to your experiences, and I’m glad there are people out there who feel the way I do. I may look Asian but I don’t feel Asian. I was never raised that way. I’m closer to my Mom’s European roots than anything else.

    Oh yeah, mixes usually turn out pretty good looking. Good luck with everything!

  • Cassidy

    Great article.

  • Fenrir

    That’s cool, I’m Half Chinese and half Irish as well.

    While growing up, I went through a hell of a lot of hardships, bad experiences with Racism and whatnot, I’m curious to know, did you experience the same while growing up?

  • JJ

    Cool! I’m Irish and my Wife Is chinese…. I now know what my daughter will look like! stunning!

    • Zappa Frank

      …not really.. else every irish should look like you and every Chinese should look like your wife.

  • Rob

    Your beautiful the way you are, if people are blind to see though the exterior they will never find what’s on the inside.
    British guy, lived in China and India,

  • James CoCo

    This is why race-mixing should be avoided at all costs!

    • Zappa Frank

      Why? Anyway I am afraid race rules are not going to be implemented. You better deal with reality

  • Guest

    I am mixed race as well. Being asked where I come from I now reply “The Earth”.

  • Kevin -classified- Mallen

    I am also half Irish half Chinese. My response to “where do you come from” is usually “The Earth”. I was born and brought up in Hong Kong though, which makes me fluent in Cantonese. I still get shocked looks from “Locals” whenever I speak Cantonese, and questions like “Why do you know Chinese”. They still call me “Gwai Lo” (Ghost person, the standard definition of whitey) but you know, oh well, it is what it is. Just live life and try to enjoy yourself.

  • Caroline Walton

    Thanks. I am half white and half Chinese from the US,and I don’t speak Chinese. I am in China now, and feeling ashamed and disconnected. It was nice to read your article.

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