Brief Lives -- October 1996
by Nicholas Lemann
THE most magical thing about journalism is the possibility that anybody, anywhere, might publish something alive. This kind of democratic miracle doesn't occur very often, even in the age of the Internet, but when it does, it's exciting and inspiring. The example I've run across most recently is KoreAm Journal, a six-year-old monthly publication with a circulation of 12,000 that is published out of an office-warehouse complex in Gardena, California.
"KoreAm" is short for "Korean-American"; part of what's impressive about this journal is that it has risen out of the swamp of ethnic publishing, where boosterism is the prevailing ethos and one of the most interesting subjects in American life is made safe and dull. KoreAm Journal does inform subscribers if someone becomes the first Korean-American to achieve a position, or if a leader protests some insult to the group. But it also reports bad news ("KOREAN BANKS DOING POORLY IN LOS ANGELES"), and it can get across the full scope of a big, messy issue such as black-Korean relations. Rarer still, it tries to capture the ambiguity and complexity of its main theme -- assimilation.
The most popular feature in the journal is an anonymous advice column called "Dear Banana Man." The author, depicted in a cartoon that accompanies every column as a muscular, booted, moustachioed figure in a banana costume, is a swaggering know-it-all who swats back answers to questions about everything from presidential politics to courtship. Not long ago I wrote to him, meekly requesting an interview. As I should have expected, Banana Man printed my letter in his column and then responded to it in print.
My editor assures me that I'll get paid for granting this interview. My first question, of course, is how much? If there is no money, then I gotta ask, "What's in it for Banana Man?" Publicity is the last thing the Great Yellow One desires.We ironed out that issue (Banana Man dropped his insistence on being paid), and I went to see him in Los Angeles. Attempts to unmask Banana Man, and his teasing evasions, are a leitmotif of the column. He has hinted that he may be married with children, but the main impression he gives is of a tough, macho, ungovernable character. Here's a typical Banana Man pronunciamento: "These namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberal weenies who favor gun control are totally lost." He says he has received death threats as a result of his column.
Banana Man plays against the stereotype of Korean-Americans as submissive straight-A students who care only about obtaining graduate degrees and making propitious within-group marriages. Several years ago KoreAm Journal published a comic strip called Robert Kool, in which the
James "Bear" Ryu, the editor of KoreAm Journal, belongs to what's called "the one-and-a-half generation" of Korean-Americans: he was born in Korea and brought to the United States as a child during the early 1970s, so that his father could attend graduate school here. (James Ryu's father, Jung S. Ryu, who has a doctorate, holds the honorary title of publisher of KoreAm Journal and writes a statesmanlike column in every issue.) Banana Man has a similar life story, except that he was born here. Both Ryu and Banana Man lived in university towns in the Midwest before gravitating to Los Angeles, the capital city for Korean-Americans. After graduating from college Banana Man planned to enter law school but decided at the last minute not to go, disappointing his parents. Ryu, meanwhile, was working part-time as a sushi chef while completing college. The two met when Banana Man happened to go to the restaurant where Ryu worked. In 1990, a few months after Ryu had started KoreAm Journal, Banana Man told me, he called Ryu "to tell him what sucked about his paper -- nothing was fun." The Banana Man column was the result of this conversation. For the inaugural column Banana Man and Ryu made up the advice-seeking letters, but since then almost all the letters have been real.
Banana is a derisive Korean-American slang word equivalent to "Oreo" among blacks. It means "yellow on the outside, white on the inside" (an alternate term is "Twinkie"). Many children of immigrants from Korea are vulnerable to accusations of bananadom, because they speak little or no Korean and don't live in Koreatown; marriage and church attendance are their only strong voluntary links to the group. (They would call their accusers "FOBs," for "fresh off the boat.") In his choice of nom de plume Banana Man decided to flaunt what he's supposed to be ashamed of.
Freed by his name and his persona, Banana Man regularly departs from the approved set of ethnic positions. In the minds of both African-Americans and Korean-Americans, a crucial prelude to the Los Angeles riots was an incident that got very little national publicity, in which a Korean shopkeeper in South Central accused a black teenage girl of attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice and then, following an altercation, shot and killed her with a .38 pistol. The shopkeeper, a woman, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but given a suspended sentence; Banana Man took the black side in the case by writing that she had gotten off too lightly.
Another time, he advised one of his readers to be careful about marrying a Korean girl, because he might be merely a pawn in an immigration scheme: "As for dipping into the Motherland gene pool, I'd be very, very cautious. Would you be used as a ticket into this country? Then unceremoniously dumped a year or so later?"
Perhaps the ultimate Banana Man apostasy was this question to his readers, which flouts the official position not just of Korean-Americans but of every ethnic group:
What would you be? It wouldn't be Korean, that's for sure. Or even Korean American. You'd be lying if you said otherwise. The plain fact of the matter is: Banana Man is Korean American. I never lie. If given the choice, I would not be Korean American.Banana Man plainly feels that he doesn't have that choice: Korean-Americanness is forced upon him by the outside world. As he wrote in 1992 about a television interview of Ross Perot,
No one, not even Barbara Walters, took notice of his ethnic inflection of "Lots of luck, fella." He said, "Rotsa ruck, ferrah," when talking about America's propensity to offer aid to foreign countries, Asian in particular. Which just goes to show you how mainstream and accepted such bigoted attitudes really are.In his view, Korean-Americans are destined to be misunderstood by both Koreans and Americans, so all they really have is one another.
A year ago Banana Man wrote about himself, "No matter how hard I try to be a dick, my niceness comes through. You all see through my politically-incorrect, bad-boy posturing. I'm a fake." His candor is admirable, but to my mind it's addressed to the wrong question -- namely, Which is the "real" Banana Man, the outlaw or the married homeowner? The question that instead interests me is, Which of the two sides of Banana Man is Korean and which is American? In the past few decades the literature on assimilation has been dominated by Jews and blacks, and in both cases the "front," American version of the self is nice and well behaved and the "real," ethnic version is wild and ungovernable. America is the superego and the group of origin is the id; assimilation means repression.
In the case of Banana Man, however, his persona is not designed to allow the Korean within to express himself. It is instead exactly the kind of false self that Alexander Portnoy and the Invisible Man created for the purpose of dealing with the mainstream American world. Rather than being meek, however, it's strutting -- based on the way Americans appear to Koreans. "He's king; he knows everything," James Ryu says of Banana Man. "That's American. You'd never do that in Korean culture. You always say, 'I think.' It's your opinion. He's breaking free of the culture." In that sense Banana Man is perhaps really white on the outside and yellow on the inside -- more like a fried egg.
In January, Banana Man announced in his column that he intends to retire and issued a call for applications from would-be successors (though they won't be allowed to use the name). "Show me your range," he wrote. "Cover a KA topic, a matter of the heart, a socio-political question, a technical query, and, of course, a hate letter." I don't doubt that Banana Man will quit: James Ryu, who is the only full-time employee of KoreAm Journal, having laid off the entire staff as an economy move back in 1993, pays him just a small monthly stipend, and it must be a difficult act to sustain anyway. Some writers who invent personas for themselves find that the persona becomes more real, more comfortable, than the self, so they cast aside their given identity and go on writing in character. Mark Twain is the obvious example. Banana Man is not one of these writers. It would take too much effort to keep writing as the person he has made up -- the fully assimilated American guy, only nominally Korean -- if that isn't the person he is deep inside.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1996; Banana Man; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 40-43.