Throughout my life, I have faced two different receptions as being Japanese-Canadian. On one hand, some people mock my Japanese ethnicity by framing my personality according to generic stereotype: I am Japanese, therefore I love to do math and to eat rice, etc. On the other hand, my Japanese culture is often mistaken to be too Western: I wear a toque, I wear plaid clothes, and I love to watch hockey. It is an unusual position to experience both a stereotypical identity from the point of two diverse communities and a rejection of my nationality from two diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Given these points, my work focuses on Asian-Canadian identity. The project is a series of digital images of various fruits, in this case, bananas in Asian and Canadian locations. The images are complemented with text taken from books and sites providing dictionary and slang definitions for the term “banana.”
“Banana” is slang for an Asian person living in a Western culture who appears to have lost their heritage while engaging in the dominant culture. Yet that is not always the case: there are hyphenated-Canadians that still practice traditions based on their ethnicity.
By being Japanese-Canadian, I break the typical Japanese stereotype because my English is fluent and I enjoy Canadian culture. In this work, I use the images of the bananas in atypical settings as a metaphor to parallel the isolation of an individual caught between the two cultures. The final image in the series draws the viewer back to me. It is a passport photo of myself, with a dictionary term describing myself as a Canadian, a Japanese, and a “banana.” The definition suggests my presence as a proud position of being in two different nationalities as well as my frustration at being labeled with a racial term.
Hemant Shah, a journalism and mass communication professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researches the role of mass media in the formation of racial stereotype. In one essay, he lists the four major stereotypes of Asians: “Yellow Peril,” “Dragon Lady,” “Charlie Chan,” and “Lotus Blossom.” He suggests that such stereotype derive from Caucasian film producers’ attempt to create binary relationships between the Americans and the Asians in order to differentiate the two, hence play off each other towards establishing identities. The binary is created to develop meaning towards their identity. However, as he suggests, the binaries are easily oversimplified, and there is a tendency for one term to be more powerful than the other; in this case, “it is those people identified as ‘them,’ ‘barbaric,’ and ‘non-white’… who are likely to be essentialized as the inferior ‘Other.’”
I still find this Asian stereotype prevalent in the current media, despite the multiculturalism in our society. It is necessary for any society to recognize that a stereotype, whether ethnical or racial, is not an accurate description; yet there are people still judging others based on their background and the colors of their skin. Media stereotypes are inaccurate, yet some people rely on them to label others.
But regardless of such continuing stereotypes that persist in the current media and entertainment world, where do the hyphenated-Canadians really position themselves in society? Would they still be considered the “Other” in a society in which ethnicity other than theirs is the dominant one? Or are they positioned along with the dominant due to their identical nationality? Paradoxically, would their position be different in another society because their nationality is different, even if their ethnic background is the same? Or is a hyphenated-Canadian an exception for an ‘oversimplified’ social-cultural meaning in their binary identity? What is more dominant to you: ethnicity or nationality? What do you see in my passport photo first – my face or my identity?