Not Quite Joy Luck
By Erin Poole
Assistant A&E Editor, The Silhouette
Banana Boys opens with a jarring scene from the perspective of a young Chinese-Canadian girl named Shirley, as she is painfully initiated into the unjust realities of structural racism and the identity crises which can result from being part of two cultures, a member of both and neither.
When her older brother Rick, then a teenager, is fired from his job at McDonalds for reasons obfuscated, he declares his intention to become a successful player in Canadian capitalist culture: rich, popular, powerful, and ultimately, emotionally untouchable. We experience Rick's sense of social disenfranchisement as he attempts to understand "his termination of employment," which is detachedly conveyed to him over the phone by his supervisor, This explains why he douses the phone in gasoline and lights it on fire. He speaks to his younger sister, who is too young at the time to understand, of the hurdles he must either jump or fail to jump in an environment which rather arbitrarily awards privilege, status and opportunities to a luck white minority.
What is so striking about this scenario is Shirley's two-fold perspective on it: she is a university student looking back on her childhood impressions of this defining crisis, which sets the tone for the rest of Rick's highly successful yet increasingly empty life, after her brother's recent alcohol-induced suicide.
Shirley watches the Banana Boys, Rick's Chinese-Canadian friends from university with whom he gradually disassociates himself, file into the church, taking their seats at the funeral. Each boy's life struggles culminate in the question-fraught death of their friend. Initially, we see these men as emotionally, socially and spiritually imbalanced, warped by their partial assimilation of both Canadian and Chinese culture. Bacon and has browns eaten with chopsticks, fragmentary Cantonese proverbs and a strong distaste for the quaintly infuriating stereotypes perpetuated by episodes of Kung Fu the Legend Continues. These are the crucial points of cultural (and pop cultural) reference, whether intriguing, banal, or both, with which the Banana Boys must align themselves in an attempt to formulate an identity, or simply appreciate what it means to do so.
Banana Boys is a humourous, creative, painful, angry and soulful search for the self in what may initially appear to be the wrong places (i.e. in a pint of beer, or several). It casts aside threadbare versions of the racial / cultural identity narrative which seem to appeal to North American representations of Chinese culture, choosing not to be too abrasive, but instead offering up the smiling crinkled faces of Chinese elders, a generous sprinkling of warm-fuzzy or noble proverbial wisdom and a doomed samurai here and there. In addition, Rick and his buddies are certainly not the Joy Luck Club - their experience is radically different, but equally valid - which author Terry Woo makes abundantly clear through his various Banana Boys narrators.
Banana Boys is peppered with family dysfunction, failed love relationships, cultural division and feelings of alienation - not just from a Chinese-Canadian perspective, but also from a contemporary postmodern perspective - although racial issues and discrimination give these problems an added dimension. Dave, Luke, Mike, Rick and Sheldon all have to deal with ignorant comments about their Asian background, a history of racist teasing (and sometimes beatings) on the playground and, in the case of Dave and Rick, aggressive racism culminating in a violent verbal / physical confrontation. They are also, however, regular guys who share many like and dislikes with the so-called average Canadian citizen.
Problems of identity arise when the Banana Boys are, in a sense, not permitted to be Canadian citizens or share in the same benefits white European-Canadians enjoy. There is a particularly persuasive argument made in a conversation between characters, Mike and Dave, in which Mike exposes some age-old, Canadian-style American bashing for the hypocrisy he perceives it to be: "We've just been spared the American race nightmare. Until now... immigration has brought out the ugly, true face of Canada... how about the BC-boat thing, the Reform Party, the New Red Scare? Fuck, man, how can you say with a straight face that Canadians are better than the 'Ugly American' when the average response around here is so mundane and pedestrian?" While this is nothing many of us have not heard before, particularly in the relatively critical environment of our university setting, it still strikes a chord with me in the wake of the complacent or misguided attitudes many of us adopt towards some extremely crucial sociopolitical issues.
Don't get me wrong, though, this book is far from being a diatribe. Banana Boys paints an amusingly dingy picture of college life, as well as the strange period of limbo following it (man, can I ever relate to that). It also features some great anecdotal story-telling, genuinely poignant moments of catharsis, valuable insights into familial and other relationships, and it avoids the tempting cookie-cutter sitcom ending, where the boy gets the girl of his dreams, enemies are reconciled (or sufficiently humiliated) and hurts mended, with laughs all around. At the same time, there is a modicum of hope at the books end and no traces of that doomed culture narrative some authors just can't seem to resist. The drinking scenes got a little tired after a while, but they do have their place and significance in a book dealing with the fervent desire for community, which is sometimes sought through semi-artificial means. In fact, when Shirley and the Boys come to terms (at least somewhat) with Rick's suicide, it is over a U2 song played on Mike's guitar at a University of Waterloo pub.
Banana Boys is Terry Woo's first novel and a fairly tight, well-crafted one at that. What I most enjoyed about it was the ability to turn the banality of pop culture into something meaningful and at times, even spiritual. IT is fairly monological - presumably told from the author's perspective - but, as Ernest Hemingway once said, sometimes it's best to write about what you know.
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