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Figuring Out Your Asian Identity

Alright, my Asian friends…let’s talk about FOBs and bananas. Let’s define the terms a bit:

FOB means fresh of the boat, a term that’s used to describe Asians who are less assimilated to mainstream culture. Banana describes an Asian who is yellow on the outside and white on the inside, meaning that they are more assimilated into mainstream culture.

In my own opinion, both of these categories suck. I don’t like them, because it kind of forces us to have to take on an identity that doesn’t always resonate with who we are.

Many of us have both sides…a FOB side, and a banana side.

Maybe we follow certain cultural customs, really enjoy certain aspects of our culture(s), or take pride in speaking our language. I also used to have a “fobby” haircut, which somehow made me more/too Asian?

But on the other hand, we live on Turtle Island (aka North America), and live within Western culture. Quite frankly, we’re a mix of our ancestral culture and Western culture.

But the two categories – FOB and banana – forces us to pick sides. We either have to be “super ethnic” or super white, when in reality, we’re somewhere inbetween.

Coming from my social justice background, a part of decolonizing ourselves is to "return" to our culture. Part of this involves learning our own language, along with learning our histories and customs.

And there’s something really empowering about it. But only to a certain point.

Let me explain. If you’re someone who grew up in the West, chances are, you deal with intense internalized racism. This leads us to implicitly and explicitly feel that our culture is inferior to Western culture. So when we "return" to our culture, we go through a process of challenging our own internalized racism by learning about the stigmatized side of ourselves, and learning to value our own culture. This process can be very empowering.

But there is a point of overdoing it. What was once empowering about decolonizing yourself, can quickly turn into re-investing into colonial categories, if taken to extremes. The goal isn’t to move from banana to FOB, or vice-versa. These categories are rooted in colonialism.

There's really no such thing as being a "proper" or "real" Asian.

The goal is to become yourself. Your true self does not exist as either banana and FOB. I’d also like to think that your true self doesn’t even exist within the spectrum of banana and FOB.

I believe that we should think of our true self as transcending categories. So if you want to learn your language, go for it. Or if you don’t really want to, then don’t. It really doesn’t make you any more or less Asian.

Being Asian is part of your identity...but you're also so much more. And being able to see yourself as a nuanced, complex human is an important part of truly becoming yourself.

The notion of “becoming yourself” can be kinda scary. Because it means going beyond familiar categories of such as FOB and banana, man and woman, etc. It means following rules and norms not because you were told to, but because it makes sense to who you are and your values.

I’ve personally learned my written language because I love calligraphy as a form of art...not so much to be literate in it. I also no longer regard myself as a Buddhist, in favour of discovering my own form of pragmatic spirituality befitting of my own personality and history. And I know very little about the history of China, and that is ok. But I still embrace the red pocket, because…well, you know =p

So when you feel the pressure (and shame) to try to fit into something at the expense of your true authentic self, you might want to take a moment to reflect, and remind’s ok to just be you.

As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, get my free Asian Survival Guide.

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Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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