It was only recently that I first heard the nickname of ‘Banana’. It came up during a discussion with some friends. ‘Banana’, what does it mean when you are called a banana? Does it mean you are tall and skinny? Or, does it mean you have a crooked back? It was only later that I found out what it truly means: ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside. ‘ ‘Banana’ is a term used to describe people who are born as ‘yellow skinned’ Asians, and speak English, which is considered as ‘white peoples” language. I am a ‘Banana’.
I am a Chinese who can speak both Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) and English. I am bilingual. Born in Canada, I was brought to Hong Kong straight after birth. I lived there, and having a Canadian passport, my parents taught me both Cantonese and English. Though their English is not very good, they managed to teach me the basics. As I grew older, my parents sent me to a Cantonese kindergarten in the day and an English one in the afternoon, where I first met native English speakers. Now I am studying in an English school, and I am still able to speak both English and Cantonese.
Though I am not good with Chinese characters, I can speak the language fluently. At home, I mainly use Cantonese, as opposed to the English I use at school. I do not know why that is; it is as if there is an automatic switch. If I am with my classmates, I stick to English, and with my family, I speak Cantonese.
The origin of Bilingualism is probably the result of two different groups of people who speak different languages needing to communicate with each other, so they learn each other’s language. The Oxford Companion to the English Language states “Bilingualism… is at least as common as monolinguals”, meaning that there are equal numbers of bilinguals and monolinguals, if not more. So it is quite normal to be bilingual. Bilingualism usually starts at a young age. Children speak with their parents in their mother tongue, but are educated at school with a different language and thus become bilingual. A foreign language taught as a subject at school, but not as a medium of instruction may also lead to bilingualism. However, there has always been debate over whether someone has advanced foreign language skills or is bilingual.
To me, as long as you know two languages as well as their native speakers, you are bilingual. Another way of being bilingual is when people move from one country to another. They have to learn a new language to adapt to the place. Living in a bilingual society also causes bilingualism. Places in Canada, where they speak French and English, are one of such societies. In my case, my bilingualism is caused by two of the three ways. Though I was born in Canada, I did not live there for long, so moving to Hong Kong did not cause my bilingualism.
I am bilingual because I live in Hong Kong, where both English and Cantonese are both used quite often, and because I am in an English school, and speak Cantonese with my parents. It is normal for multilingual people to use different languages in different occasions and to different groups of people. Bilinguals change languages “… depending on the type of person addressed … and on location or social setting,” from The Encyclopedia of Language. I use different languages with different things I do, one that is expected from me at that particular environment.
This allows me to fit in, and be part of the group. However, there are “… many cases when a bilingual talks to another bilingual… and yet changes from one language to another in the course of the conversation,” which in the case of ‘Bananas’, is ‘Chinglish’. This mixture of Chinese and English seems to form a new language. Different languages may not be compatible with each other, so how bilinguals can use both languages without mix-ups is a mystery. I do not know how I do it. My guess is that as I speak one language, I am able to ‘switch off’ the other language.
When switching from one language to another, bilinguals can turn the switches quite quickly, but it may still take a few seconds. I do admit that I speak ‘Chinglish’. It is difficult to express certain terms in one language, and therefore would be easier to use that word from another language. Things such as idioms and old sayings of one language may be hard to explain in another. Another reason for people to speak ‘Chinglish’, or other linguistic compounds, is to form a group where they belong. It boxes out people who cannot speak both languages, allowing the ‘Bananas’ to separate from others, and feel special.
For example, people mix languages to sound foreign or well educated, yet allowing local people to understand parts of what they are saying. I only code mix in order to say things that are hard to explain in that language, not to show off. I do not blame them for not being multilingual. So ‘Bananas’ are not Chinese, and not English. We are a separate group, a hybrid group. Our language is a part of us. It shows who we are, who I am. “Linguistic factors influence our judgment of personality… and many other areas of identity and social survival,” [The Encyclopedia of Language].
When people hear what I say; they make an impression of whom I am. This impression may not be true, but it will influence how they treat you. The Language Encyclopedia also states “More than anything, language shows we ‘belong'”. So does this mean I ‘belong’ to both an English and a Cantonese group? Or am I between the two? I belong to all three. I have noticed a difference in treatment when I use different languages. When I was having a conversation with my brother in Cantonese in a train, other passengers treated us as a part of a whole. They did not pay particular attention to us.
We got onto another train and start a conversation in English. Instantly, other passengers begin to pay attention to us, giving us looks and short glances, as if we were alien. This small experiment shows I can change the where I belong, simply by turning on and off languages. As a conclusion, I think being a ‘Banana’ is quite special. Since I know one more language than a monolingual, I have advantages over half the world. I can also switch who I am by changing languages. It is part of me to be able to speak English and Cantonese. I am proud to be a ‘Banana’. I am proud to be a normal person.