How Far Being a Banana Got Me

I still remember it vividly. I was 10 years old, and I had just come home from school. I opened the door to our townhouse and found my mum in a near foetal position on the chair sobbing. This was the first time I’d ever seen my mum in such a state, and I didn’t know how to respond. So I simply asked what was wrong. She said her movie-star-good-looks boyfriend, Ray, had dumped her, and she didn’t understand why. Having migrated from Indonesia a little over a year before to escape an alcoholic, gambling-addict husband, Mum’s English was not the best. Despite going to lessons, more pressing priorities kept her English at a basic level, and I can imagine that whatever Ray had said, she wouldn’t have been able to understand it fully. She told me to call him to find out why.

I’ve just had enough of her. This was never a long-term thing. We had fun, but she can’t offer me anything more. I just like to have fun with Asian women. We can’t communicate properly, she doesn’t drink and hates going to the beach or even having bbqs at the park. She’s too precious and picky like most Asian women are. And I don’t like kids. I don’t want kids—especially not a kid like you who doesn’t have any friends and can’t do anything on their own. I don’t want to have to bring you with us every single time I want to take your mum out on a date. And you’re too fat. It’s a struggle to fit you in the backseat with all the stuff I have in there.

And that was the moment I became aware of self-worth. I didn’t really understand the concept fully then, but subconsciously it planted a seed that made me measure my worth based on my ability to fit into white Australian culture and obtain approval from my white friends, white figures of authority, and especially white men. I didn’t want to feel the pain and shame that my mum was subjected to nor the pain and shame that Ray made me feel partly responsible for.

I started focusing most of my energy into accumulating white friends, and felt proud to be the only Asian when we did go out together. While I didn’t shun my Asian companions, I didn’t want to identify with them or participate in any of “their” cultural practices. I even went as far as not wanting to eat rice. My friends started calling me a ‘banana’ and at the time, it was the best label they could have ever given me. I was hooked. I wanted more white in my life and wanted it from the group of white Australian people I idolised the most at the time: popular, good looking, masculine, white Australian males. They were everything I wanted to be, and I needed their acceptance in order to feel valued. I wanted to prove Ray and everything that he represented wrong. I wanted to prove that I was worthy of his attention, of his time and his respect. Compliments from the white jocks at school and especially white male sports teachers meant everything to me, and if for whatever reason they would criticise or make fun of me, my world would come crashing down.

For years to come, as I migrated from one country to another, I would identify with cultural groups I deemed as priority to get approval from. I wanted to be the lads at the pub, the pretty boys getting stares in the club, the snowboarders smoking weed in the mountains, or the fashionistas on Instagram.

While the types of groups I chased to get my self-worth from changed throughout the course of my travels, one particular group stayed constant. Getting validation from strong and handsome older white males would shape and define the course of my romantic life and self-worth for many years to come. Whether I was living in Australia, Mexico or Canada, I gravitated towards them and sought their approval in order to feel good about myself. For years I would only date that particular type. Within the white, gay community, a lot of these men had a particular liking for younger, Asian males and it made it too easy for me to get stuck in the vicious cycle of obtaining my self-esteem from how much attention and love they gave me, however fleeting some of it might have been.

Today I weep for that naïve 10 year old, that desperate teenager, that confused twenty-something, soul-searching nomad. I don’t know how I quite did it or if there was a particular event that set it off, but I got sick of trying to fit in and trying to constantly gain approval from people I deemed to be the epitome of a particular cultural representation so that I would feel worthy of love, respect and the right to just exist wherever I was at the time. Through my travels, I realised that I didn’t want to fit in. Rather, I wanted to belong. I wanted to be in a place where I wanted to be and associate with people who wanted me for me, and not because I can be like everyone else. I have been through enough to know that I am enough. To be able to love myself wholeheartedly and embrace my complexities. I am no longer the fool who gives what he cannot lose to gain what he cannot keep.

"True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts." — Brene Brown

The countries that I live in and the people I mix with will be ever changing, and if I want to have a high sense of self-worth guiding me forward, I need what is real, genuine, and authentic to anchor me. I will only find that by escaping the noise of the crowd, listening to the voice within and honouring my truth.

This article was first published on 3 February 2018