It can be safely assumed that most Chinese Malaysians are capable of speaking Mandarin or at least one dialect, be it Cantonese, Hokkien or others. There is, however, a small subset of this group who are actually incapable of speaking any Chinese whatsoever.
They are often referred to as “bananas” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Most times it’s a teasing term, although it has been known to have been used disparagingly.
Bananas tend to have rather interesting life experiences due to their illiteracy; some harmless, others not so much.
Here are just some of the challenges they are likely to face in Malaysia. If you identify as a banana, can you relate?
1. ‘Chicken and duck’ scenarios
There’s a Cantonese idiom that goes, “a chicken talking to a duck”. It refers to conversations where no one understands each other.
Bananas tend to face this situation quite often. Many Chinese speakers assume bananas to be similarly conversant, leading them to speak in Chinese, only to have their message completely lost.
The banana’s common response is often a nervous laugh and an explanation that they are a banana. Awkward.
Hopefully, rather than clucking and quacking, they will find a common language in English or Bahasa Melayu.
It’s a fact of life: people can be cruel. Being the target of disparaging comments is a common experience for many bananas.
Perhaps it is a matter of cultural pride, but there are some who do look down on bananas as being “fake” Chinese. Knowledge of the language is a purity test of sorts: “If you can’t speak it, you’re not it.”
Sadly, even if you embraced literally every other part of Chinese culture, you are not likely to gain respect from these people.
The worst part is when you actually try to speak it, only to be openly mocked for your mispronunciations and poor grammar. Sigh.
3. Fewer career options
There have been debates of late about the ethicality of job openings that are limited to Chinese-literate applicants.
Regardless of one’s stance, it can’t be denied that not knowing the language can lead to closed doors. Some employers prefer to hire polyglot workers, so illiteracy is often a disadvantage.
Even if you end up taking a job without a literacy requirement, you might end up having to pass your duties on to someone who can speak Chinese, which is hardly a good look.
4. Aversion to interaction
After one too many failed attempts at conversing with Chinese-speaking folks, some bananas end up throwing in the towel altogether.
Consequently, they might end up developing a habit of avoiding conversations with Chinese strangers, fearing that same ol’ awkward conversation all over again.
Whether it’s avoiding hawker centres, medical halls, or convenience stores, it can be quite crippling. Family gatherings, too, can pose a problem, especially if some relatives speak exclusively in Mandarin or a dialect and nothing else.
Most interactions end up being little more than forced smiles and nodding heads, with little actual conversation to be had.
5. Adapting and moving on
This all said, it is very much possible to live life in Malaysia as a banana. After all, there are many Malaysians who are more than happy to accommodate you without belittling your language skills.
In fact, you might find solidarity with those in similar situations. There are plenty of Chinese Malaysians out there whose mother tongue is not the presumed one.
Most bananas eventually pick up a smidgeon of Chinese, enough to get by basic situations such as ordering food or telling time.
Ultimately, skin colour should not be dictating what you speak on a daily basis; and knowledge (or lack) of a language should never degrade one’s value as a person.