Reacting to departing U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s February 27 farewell news conference in Beijing, the state-run China News Service published a critique by Wang Ping that called Ambassador Locke a “banana.”
Banana or Twinkie for “white-on-the-inside” East Asian Americans, Oreo for African-Americans, coconut for South Asian-Americans, apple for Native Americans—these epithets are all products of the simplistic, groundless belief that one's “race” should correspond to a (rarely defined) set of behavioral norms, to a locus of identity and loyalty. As an ethnic Chinese who was born and raised in the States, “banana” (and later “Twinkie”) was a term I heard a lot, sometimes directed my way, sometimes said in reference to another American of East Asian extraction who wasn’t “Chinese” (or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese) enough. These were also terms I frequently heard and still occasionally hear East Asian-Americans call themselves, often with distinct pride rather than self-deprecation. Whether it’s insulting depends very much on the context, and who’s on the receiving end.
In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race. But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.
In Ambassador Locke’s case, you’d think that the fact that he was in Beijing as the top representative of the U.S. government would dispel any expectation that his loyalties and identity should be to anywhere but Washington (the state or D.C.). Yet I would wager that even among his ardent admirers in China—the people who responded most positively to his backpack-toting, Starbucks buying, down-to-earth style—part of that admiration grew out of a sense that he was “one of us:” a Chinese person. Ambassador Locke reinforced this, deliberately or otherwise, with each visit to his ancestral home in Taishan, Guangdong. It was certainly useful to play to it, and it often worked. There was of course always that other edge to his Chineseness. In any case, to have expected color-blindness toward Ambassador Locke in China would be even more naive than to have expected it in the U.S. with President Obama.
Americans are certainly not immune to the kind of thinking that gives rise to “race traitor” accusations. It’s often there in the subtext when expatriates attack Mark Rowswell, the (white) Canadian with impeccable spoken Chinese who has for many years played the character Dashan on Chinese television. It’s implicit, alongside more reasonable objections, in criticism of white reporters who go on air for CCTV News. And it’s even there in the derision many feel for those who call themselves “eggs”—white people who’ve convinced themselves that they’re really "culturally Asian,” with a “yolk” consisting (their detractors might say) of an obsessive familiarity with Manga or anime, martial arts films, Eastern religion, TCM—and of course “yellow fever,” that creepy fetishistic attraction to East Asian women. Sure, “race traitor” is not being flung openly in The Globe and Mail or The New York Times. But it would hardly surprise me were subtler accusations of race treason to pop up on Fox.