This autobiography by Jian Qiu Huang shows Western culture (specifically Australian) through Malayan eyes. It is funny, poignant, honest and illustrates very clearly and cleverly, but without artifice, how different the cultures are.
The young Yellow Banana takes his entire family’s hopes on his shoulders in the early 1970’s as he goes to study at University in Melbourne. Yellow Banana is a cultural term, literally meaning ‘culturally’ Yellow on the outside ,White on the inside and provides a simple and clear demonstration of the cultural dichotomy which pervades the life of Jian Qui Huang and doubtless many more in similar positions.
Whereas for your average westerner going to Uni is a time of freedom and irresponsibility, not so for Yellow Banana. For every Australian dollar he spends his family has to earn four times their normal income. He is therefore very careful in his expenditure. And he has a very serious attitude. His goals are to finish a degree and get a good, well paid and respected job, in business. He little guesses how hard this will be. Or what the implications and consequences will be.
He finds the Aussie accent almost impenetrable at first, certainly very different from English as it was taught at school in Malaysia. He learns quickly that you speak different English depending on whether you are with Malaysians or Australians and this sense of duality pervades throughout the story. There are beautiful and funny descriptions of how Australian sounds to the untutored ear. It’s a humorous but clever reminder to dominant cultures of the importance that we learn to ‘see ourselves as others see us’.
Yellow Banana learns mainly through embarrassment and there are plenty of these scenes to make you laugh (and squirm) vicariously on his behalf. All are told with a simple honesty which is refreshing and quite captivating at times. From buying condoms to kissing a westerner (described as ‘tasting like lamb’) to getting a job, buying food and furnishing a house we see the clash and conflict of the two cultures he has to juggle in his daily life.
Yellow Banana learns the Western way by living it and his dreams become Australian dreams. He wants to become an ‘ex pat’ and go and live in Malaysia as an Australian ex pat would do. This is both sad and thought provoking as one realises that having ‘westernised’ his hopes and expectations he will no longer fit into his own society. He goes back to Kuala Lumpa as a ‘stranger’ in his own country.
His Taoist father gives him two pieces of advice. Don’t marry a white girl and don’t marry a tiger (Chinese astrological sign). He of course falls foul of both of these pieces of advice and lives to rue the day. I found the calmness of Taoist philosophy quite moving throughout the work. For me personally it was quite interesting because I came to Taoism as a Westerner and Yellow Banana grew up influenced by Taoism and tries to integrate it with a western lifestyle. It was like looking at a similar spiritual journey from two different ends of a spectrum. His ability to deal with his situations and specifically to try and look at the other person’s point of view without imparting blame is central to this core belief system and is a constant throughout the telling of his story.
This story covers thirty odd years of his life and the sacrifices that have to be made throughout his life are often heart rending. As we move from his youthful experience to that of what should be a ‘successful’ middle age, we find that things do not get any easier. He has to come to terms with the concept that ‘pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional’ and it becomes clear that this story is told therapeutically as much as anything. It is none the less a story because of that. He points out that ‘we are all going through the classroom of life and each subject is there for us to learn from and grow as souls.’ I found it particularly moving that as his life takes turns for the worse, his basic faith helps him through. Spirituality and music and a sense of the importance of family are the grounding, eternal elements in Yellow Banana’s journey and help him to make sense of his life.
Acceptance is a core tenet of Taoism and Yellow Banana discovers this through the Beatles ‘Let it Be’ whereas I discovered it from my interpretation of the Taoist concept of ‘Wu Wei.’ This shows that the core ‘ideas’ are there in many guises and we come upon them as they relate to our own personal experience.
This is a moving, poignant, very funny and thoughtful work which shows you Western culture from another perspective and Eastern religion and philosophy in practice in a non preaching way. All in all, it’s one man’s life. His real experience, told with candour and honesty is both moving and poignant. As an autobiography it is compelling, as a piece of cultural commentary it is equally significant. It helps you to look at life from the perspective of another person and reminds us that however different we are, at the core, we are all very much the same.
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