As the day draws closer for our trip to Vietnam I’ve been reflecting. I grew up in Thamesmead, a district in South East London with a pretty mixed population.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, a small group of Vietnamese refugees made their home in Thamesmead, us included. I was given an English name (Andy) and not a Vietnamese name like my brothers and when I came home from school I spoke English. I guess my parents wanted me to fit in and wanted to learn English as I did.
So I can’t say I ever felt very Vietnamese as a kid. Granted, I ate much cooler food than everyone else (yes I’m sorry English friends I can’t lie) and we got red envelopes at Chinese New Year, but Vietnamese culture seemed a little distant to me. As I grew older, my grasp of the language faded and these days I have a rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese.
So it came as a huge surprise to me when, aged 18, I bumped into an old friend from Thamesmead on the train. He spoke to me in Vietnamese and I responded in English. He laughed and said to me,
“Dude, you’re such a banana”
I had no idea what he meant. He had to explain, as my confused look gave me away
“It means you’re yellow on the outside and white on the inside”
In the melting pot of London, I have always found yellow skin to be a huge benefit. It seems that not many people have anything against Asians. Racists tend to see in black and white. Generally, we are thought of as being studious in the classroom and in possession of kungfu, which stops people bothering us.
I went home that day and slept fine in my bed, but the comment niggled. Was it a problem to be a banana? Was I missing something vital?
The scratch on the surface developed while I was at university into a gaping hole. Warwick was not like Thamesmead at all. Suddenly all of my friends were white. I remember one day asking my flatmate if he saw me as any different and, I suppose he meant it well, but his response was “No, I think of you as white like me. No different at all”
But the mirror doesn’t lie and some days I would notice this yellow face looking back from the other side.
My mind was made up. One day I would go to Vietnam and try to see what the war dragged me away from.