Oh my god, if I hear or see the word “banana” used as a descriptor for Asians who have assimilated into “North American” culture, I am going to cry (like, actually.) And I don’t care if Asians are using the term themselves as a self-descriptor. It doesn’t make it any better; in fact, it’s probably worse. East Asians in North America are not off-shoots and variations of the norm (read: white). So when I came across Banana: A Chinese American Experience, an installation project about Chinese Americans by Claudia Chow, I was peeved and disappointed.
The project examined “the influences which shape the lives of Chinese American youths in the U.S.” through an installation at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum that reconstructed “the apartment of the fictional Lee family, second-generation Chinese Americans presently living in New York City.” The project is also online as an interactive web installation.
By clicking on various objects (including a violin and the Sanrio character Badtz-Maru) inside the interactive apartment, we are “taught” about various supposed Chinese American values and traditions. These values include the importance of family, food and education. We also learn about the difficulties of assimilating into the “American Way of Life” while maintaining Chinese traditions.
Claudia Chow’s artistic statements says that this installation is a snapshot of “one single Chinese American family.” I think what is really going on here is that she tried not to generalize by tossing in a half-hearted disclaimer, in hopes that it will be enough to cover her ass. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. Too bad when artists of colour center their work around issues of race, we are forced to take into account issues of representation and expectations that other artists (by which I mean white artists) don’t have to worry their little hearts over. Banana isn’t just about the Lee family; anyone who looks like a possible “Lee” is implicated in this installation.
Also, who is the intended audience? What is Claudia Chow trying to accomplish? It sure doesn’t seem like the project was created with Chinese Americans in mind. For one, the entire web installation is in English. Second, surely Chinese Americans have no need for such a project when they are the subjects of their own lives. Banana seems more like a “multicultural” anthropological study, intended to aid non-Chinese Americans in better understanding “the Chinese American experience.” Damn, nothing more disappointing and infuriating when people of colour in positions of authority tokenize and pigeon-hole themselves, which in turn, does the same for everyone else who looks like them.
And come on, these types of voyeuristic cultural glimpses are so tired. Doesn’t, like, everyone have a Chinese friend nowadays (and a black friend… and a gay friend, too)? No one needs a project like this to know how Chinese American families operate! They are everywhere! If you are worthy enough and your Chinese friend is kind enough, maybe you will be invited over for a first-hand taste of Chinese American struggles in the land of the free.