Interview: The Life of a Banana, PP Wong

The Life of a Banana

‘PP Wong has blazed a trail for future British Chinese novelists. The Life of a Banana is bursting with original and exciting flavours.’ – Ben Chu, The Independent

‘Life Of A Banana is so refreshingly distinct. Read it, and you will soon find yourself wanting more.’ – The Daily Mail

‘Revealing in its exploration of cultural and generational conflicts and moving in its optimism.’ – The Guardian

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This week I’ve caught up with acclaimed début author PP Wong, the first British Chinese author in the U.K. to secure a publishing deal, with Legend Press, for her novel The Life of a Banana. If you’ve not heard of it already, the question is why not! The book is a fierce and moving story of the life of a British Chinese childhood in London told by twelve year old protagonist, Xing Li.

I asked PP 5 questions about about her novel.

PP Wong

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INTERVIEW

1. When did The Life of A Banana begin for you? Was there a moment of inspiration for the novel itself?

When I was a child, I would max out my library card and have a stack of books next to my bed. I was a quiet nerd – so curling up with a good book was my idea of fun. It still is my idea of fun! I guess the only difference between me now and then is that now I don’t have such a bad haircut! I don’t remember reading any stories about Chinese kids when I was young. I did not have any Asian role models to look up to and in my imaginary games I would pretend to be blonde and white. I suppose The Life of A Banana was a story that I always had at the back of my mind. I had a deep longing to read a book about a British Chinese family – to have characters that I could call my own. I don’t think I had a specific moment of inspiration. It was more of a gradual process. The Life of a Banana was a story that was in my heart for many years. I suppose I hoped one day I would be brave enough to write it.

2. The Life of a Banana speaks candidly about modern-day racism in Britain towards ethnic minorities, what made you use a children’s novel, and Xing Li’s character in particular, as a way to approach the topic?

Even though the protagonist Xing Li is 12 years old, the novel was initially targeted at adults. However, the topics of bullying and prejudices are something many young people identify with too. My novel now comes under the “crossover” genre which means it’s for both adults and children. It has been wonderful seeing the positive impact The Life of a Banana has on readers both young and old.

I’ve spent my life moving between London and Singapore and am a mish-mash of two cultures. In this sense, my book is a mish-mash of opposites. I wanted to play around with darkness and light, humour and tears. The novel covers dark topics like mental illness and racist bullying but the light hearted and innocent approach Xing Li has balances the novel out. I like it that even though Xing Li goes through a number of horrible circumstances, she still retains her youthful, inquisitive nature.

3. You’re also the Editor-in-Chief for the website bananawriters.com, brilliant site! How/when did the site form, and did it coincide with your own experience of trying to get The Life of a Banana published?

It was difficult to get a UK publishing deal. After I signed with a publisher, I thought to myself, “There must be other Asian writers who are going through the same struggles that I’ve gone through. Maybe I should start a website?”

I did not know whether Bananawriters.com would be successful. But I felt that I could at least give it my best – even if I helped to encourage just one or two people it would be worth it. After the first couple of issues (and with many famous Asian authors being so supportive) Bananawriters.com started to explode.

4. Gudrun Jobst designed the cover for The Life of a Banana, did you have a say in the design, and what is your favourite aspect?

My wonderful UK publisher Legend Press included me in the publishing process every step of the way. They always asked for my feedback and were open to new ideas. Something I made clear was that I did not want my novel to have the generic cover that many Asian novels possess. For some reason, the cover of many Asian novels are red with Chinese symbols, cherry blossom or beautiful women with black, flowing hair. All that does is categorize all Asian authors in an “Asian genre” despite what topic or style the novel is written in.

I am glad that my publisher got where I was coming from. The cover Gudrun produced reflects what The Life of a Banana is – contemporary, dark, funny and quirky. My favourite aspect is actually on the back of the book where the tortoise is sitting on the ISBN number. Every time I see that, it makes me smile. I think the cover is like marmite – you either hate it or love it. But at least, the cover has an “opinion” and is not boring.

5. Finally, I hear Xing Li is your favourite character; Grandma is mine. What do you think Grandma would make of you?

She’d probably tell me off for not being too tidy and for my terrible Chinese with the British accent.

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I have to thank PP so much for featuring on Lose & Find,  The Life of a Banana is out in all good book stores and can be purchased for Kindle and Paperback:

Waterstones / Amazon / WH SmithBarnes & Noble

And of course, read more about PP on her website ppwongauthor.com.

But ’til next time folks, it’s bye from me

Charlotte xx

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Year Abroad: Pre-Departure & Presents

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As I head off to Shanghai, I’m thinking I’m really lucky I’ve been to China before.

In June last year, I made my first trip to Mainland China teaching at the incredible Tsinghua University English Summer Camp (TUESC) and then tentatively backpacking around the East of the country afterwards.  And as such, when I leave my friends behind in Belfast, I have a favour to ask my Dad:

“Please can I have lots of individually packaged Twinings teabags.”
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Twinings Teabags

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Whatever for you ask?
Well, it’s not to quench my ‘wee cuppa tea’ addiction, which, admittedly, I do have.
They’re pre-prepared presents. Asian-style.

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EVERYDAY GIFTS

I was baffled in Taiwan two years ago, to receive a stream of little mechanical pencils, cute rubbers, juice boxes, sweets, individually wrapped biscuits and even clothes from fellow students and new friends. And just two years later, the same thing happened throughout my Tsinghua teaching experience – even though I was technically a teacher. It took me ages to catch on that this wasn’t just ‘everyone-spoil-Charlotte’ season.

Relationships in Asia, from basic friendships, to familial relations, the classroom and workplace, to everyday exchanges are bound up in a cultural expressions of amicable feeling through buying little favours for one another.
And it’s super super cute.

The material expression of sentiments through gifts is much, much more casual in China and Taiwan. It’s quite different to formation of friendships in the West; I imagine that buying gifts for friends at home in this cute fashion could potentially arouse suspicion (“What does this person want from me that they’re buying stuff?”),  or a sense of being bought off (“I don’t need presents to be their friend”).

It makes me think about UK workplace rules about buying presents for superiors, or cultural etiquette regarding gifts for lecturers and teachers. Friends of mine in internships and just starting work swap stories on embarrassing ‘No gifts’ rules (Well, there’s a £30 bottle of Red I’m going to have to drink) and the anti-bribery rules that make buying gifts to express thanks an absolute mine-field.

Gifts sure are complicated wherever I go…

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ON TEA

My Dad made an off-hand comment about how it’s strange that I want to give tea, grown in India, as a present from home that somewhat ‘symbolises’ Britishness. Granted, with some intense over-thinking, there’s something of a secluded British Colonial history in using tea as a gift. Furthermore, perhaps there’s some Western superiority in giving a present of tea to a country that was cultivating, brewing and drinking it, long before we Brits knew what the whole show was even about…

But still.
Not to get lost from my original point. All academic debates aside, it’s the culture of tea-drinking that I want to share…  And what a lovely culture it is! I love a good brew: first thing in the morning, after a mind-boggling lecture, in the sunshine, in the rain, after a boozy night out – there is no situation in which a tea (with a good dollop of milk) is not welcome. Hopefully, I’ll learn a little about Chinese tea in return!

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Earl Grey

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DOING IT RIGHT

 Barely a week later, as I watch a Taiwanese girlfriend pack for her trip abroad, a quarter of her suitcase is filled with biscuits, Chinese buns and egg rolls to give to people she meets along the way. While the process certainly makes me glad I’ve taken the teabags, barely 10g in weight of shrivelled leaves that are in my luggage for prospective friends, it’s clear that my very basic idea of pre-departure present preparation isn’t quite up to scratch with proper Chinese standards

Oh well, I tried.

PS. CHINESE PRESENT-GIVING

I’ve got a super-simplified guide to stay away from accidentally offending when giving gifts in Chinese cultures:

~ Nothing in fours
~ No clocks
~ Nothing white
~ Never Chrysanthemums

All of these are related to funerals (white and Chrysanthemums) or death (four sounds like the word for death in Chinese, and clocks, well, time – it’s like reminding us that it’s running out…).

And on that cheery note,

Till next time  x

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Taiwan: Cultural Boo-Boos

A gift bag for a good friend!

Despite being half-Taiwanese, and having spent a fair amount of time here observing what are very foreign customs, I still struggle to express myself sometimes. Not only linguistically, although that also happens more often than I’d like, but rather importantly, in terms of gestures. This gift bag is something I fretted over for weeks; a very good girl friend of mine helped me out a lot in the past, and I wanted to find some way to repay her that she would appreciate, and wouldn’t be accidentally offended by. I settled on some beauty products and a top of Western labels (harder/more expensive here in Taipei) and making some passive Origami goldfish (six, with my mother’s suggestion, staying well away from the unlucky number four).

Pish, how can you possibly accidentally offend someone, you ask?
Believe me, it’s happened in the past.

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Two years ago I made a big boo boo offering to pay a Taiwanese friend petrol money for a three hour round trip out to the beach; there were five of us in the car, and he paid for petrol and toll booths along the way, so of course we should offer, right? As the strange look passed that his face quickly told, it was very wrong.

I later asked a girl friend what I did wrong, and she suggested that I should have taken him out to dinner instead. I didn’t see the difference between her suggestion and my action at the time, and it wasn’t until later till I realised that that in itself was was a subtle indicator that I had committed a cultural faux-pas; it wasn’t till later I thought that perhaps the custom I was used to, that of ‘Let’s go Dutch’ – each person being accountable for their own finances and it being expected of the recipients to split the costs – wasn’t something that was expectable a third of the way across the planet. In a conversation with another Chinese friend, she put it in a rather succinct analogy, where the cultural barrier could be transcended in one blunt description: what I did was the equivalent of treating him like a taxi driver.

Ah.

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I think half the the pain of being a foreigner is insulting people when you mean well.

I’m still not sure that there’s a set in stone guideline for how these things work, but I suspect that there are a whole set of cultural mistakes I make every day without noticing. Do share any similar experiences if you have them; I’m still carrying a long back-log of cultural misunderstandings, waiting to be deciphered…

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China: The Everyday Life

The Rickety Bus Lottery

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I love Chinese buses.

The rickety thrill of not knowing where you are, or if you’re going to end up where you think you’re going.

There’s something to be said for doing things the way the Chinese do. All the way across the world, the thing that gets me the most is the chance to experience how other people live their daily lives. I love the terrifying, ramshackle confusion of indecipherable bus timetables, of minuscule print stop names, the hurly-burly locals bustle for seats.

The lurch and groan of the buses in Chengdu screech of ancient machinery, and the rattle of tin-trap assures me the metal contraption has never seen a safe test, let alone heard of one.

Who knows where I’ll end up.
I’m sure it’ll be exciting.

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The Chengdu Noodle Man.

Time for lunch and I’m sitting in a Xingjiang Muslim noodle restaurant that’s at most the size of a small bedroom. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mattress hiding somewhere amongst the cupboards at the back.

I manage to smile politely enough to let the suspicious young chef kindly allow me video him literally pulling the noodles for my lunch, even though he clearly thought I was batty.

 He’s got serious skills, and is extremely polite.

You sure don’t get noodles like this in your ramen-pack folks.

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Thanks Noodle Man!

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Chengdu:

Buses
The Noodle Man

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China: Park Life, Chengdu

Chengdu, We’ve Arrived!

“Dǎdì! Dǎdì! Dǎdì! Dǎdì!”

(打的! 打的! 打的! 打的!)

Repeatedly shouted at, around, and across me throughout my first twenty minutes in Chengdu.

Standing in the 11PM pitch black outside the Chengdu train station, I’m assailed by a mob of cheery, but intimidating, taxi drivers. I’ve never heard this expression for calling a taxi, and am suitably baffled to near tears at the awkwardness of not understanding these two syllables, and, probably more pressing, the pressure to stay awake after nearly twenty hours worth of Chinese long-distance slow train.

Moments in which I wish I wasn’t a tourist.

Needless to say, a quick call to our lovely proprietor at Mr. Panda Hostel, we get English instructions, a laughing translation, and arrive in less than 15mins in a warm, softly-lit hostel reception.
Top Marks.

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Shake It!

The next morning we hit the local park.

I, personally, love seeing and (sometimes under pressure) doing what the locals do in their day-to-day lives – even if its just strolling in the park, taking the wild rickety buses across town, or getting hawked at at the local food markets.

In a large clearing of a park in Chengdu, the local geriatrics congregate for jazz dancing, couples dancing, line dancing and fashion catwalks in the afternoons. They’re mostly pensioners with not much else to do; their sons and daughters work and their grandchildren have school. So they meet in this small open square and enjoy each other’s company with just a strip of worn red carpet to serve as a catwalk, a garage junk-jumble collection of instruments, and a fuzzy (but loud) PA system.

Boy do they shake it, though.

This man can do things with his belly I never thought possible…

“The Old Man Dancing (Vigorously)”

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We have a cheeky go at line dancing (although I admit it took a shed-load of convincing to show the elderly population of complete lack of co-ordination), but with Jakob showing off his dance moves and charming up the local grandchildren, how could I refuse?

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The Dating Classifieds, Chinese-style.

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Outdoor in Chengdu central park there’s lots going on, and finding a life partner is one of the activities.

We walk around the (intently) milling crowds of 40+ classified readers, who feign nonchalance as they scan the simple paper profiles pegged to make-shift display racks of cheap string. The matchmakers give some good promotional chats and I cheekily listen in to their happy conversation; it’s a communal get-together of mild flirting, show-casing and giggling, jet-permed ladies hide behind shades as they walk in pairs between many Chinese men.

It’s a great way to find love.
I think I’d prefer this to match.com…

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[A Musical Interlude]

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In the afternoon sun, a stroll around the maze of pagodas reveals groups of elderly musicians with an amazing variety of instruments – including the Erhu, the Chinese answer to the violin.

I’ve wanted to do this all my life, and I work up to courage to approach a group of old men playing Erhu under the quiet shade of the dark wooden pagodas; a terrifying feat.

This quiet gentleman lent me his, and told me a little about his daughter in the UK. I was a little too embarrassed to try in front of them all, but it was incredible.

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Park Trip Checklists:

  • Find two or more couples getting wedding photography
    (+10 points for cosplay photography)
  • Achieve terrified laughter from the local children, minus points for crying
  • Do all the activities signposted for children
  • Do all the activities signposted for the elderly
  • Join in on the local classes: painting, dancing, and ESPECIALLY the asian-special: stained glass picture making
  • Get a boat trip on the lakes and chase the locals
  • Try all the sticky sweets and lollies on sale
  • Go home and nap before dinner

What a pleasant day’s touristing!

To top it all off, our park day ends with a goodby from this happy lad with his Spongebob Squarepants (海绵宝宝 ) Balloon.

Over and out from Chengdu!

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Chengdu:
Taxis
Dancing
Dating
[A Musical Interlude]
Spongebob Squarepants

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Beijing, TUESC: Tsinghua Get-In

‘Get-In‘: [theatre speak] the theatre term for the precious few hours a company have to get into a theatre, get their props and costumes in, actors prepped with routine and ready for the rehearsals and big show.
[everyday slang] get stuck in, wa-hoo!

Cue Tsinghua Get-In.

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We’ve made it to China, we’ve been picked up by four lovely first year students who shepherd our post-nausea wracked bodies (ok, well that only applies to me) into a Tsinghua levied little bus, 小巴士 (xiǎo bāshì), for the journey to the University.

There were several of us student-teachers on the KLM flight into Beijing, and it’s with not just a little curiosity that we survey each other from across the aisles of the plane seats; for the most part I succeed in having some introductory chat with students from London, Nottingham and even little Exeter and for the latter part I’m focusing on keeping the contents of my stomach from the interior of the plane.

UNPACK

The University bundles us into our dorms, and it’s not till the next day that we get assigned to our teaching groups and classes.

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The camp is split up to mirror the political structure of China’s provinces; pretty neat the camp functions as a state TSINGHUA, where each of the letters represent a province  T to A in which the student are split into classes according to English ability top class red to bottom purple.

I’m teaching Blue G with my fellow teacher Stefan from University of Florida (Go Gators!) and Jennifer, an Applied Lingistics Major from University of Georgia, with helpers Lauren an Alpha Chi Omega from Baylor and Jeff from University of Chicago.

I’m over-run with Americans and I forsee dustbin/trashcan-esque problems.

But all jokes aside, I can’t wait to get teaching with the team!

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DORM LIFE

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Here’s a sneaky peek at my relatively luxurious room at Tsinghua University Summer Camp. Tiled floor? Check. Hard Chinese-style bed? Check. TV with only Chinese channels? Check. Washing hung up in the window already? Double-check. I am so acclimatised to Asia you’d think I was half Asian… (I am.)

I am not however, Asian enough to fathom sharing a dorm with six to eight other students, with a curfew of 1030PM as the local students here at Tsinghua do.

The British half of me recoils at the thought of lack of privacy; I was never a boarding school student, never a stay-at-summer-camp kind of girl. I like the relative freedom British student Dorms have, and certainly by comparison, the Chinese University style seems both foreign, militant and daunting. However, the students here say that there are upsides to sharing: the community spirit, the group mentality and the quick bonding of friendships. I don’t think I’m ready for China-style dorms just yet…

Some of the Western volunteers complain at the sparseness of the rooms.
I’m silently thinking we’re being seriously spoilt.

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Can’t wait for teaching to commence!

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Taiwan: Chinese Poetry

So that’s what Chinese poetry looks like…

‘Doesn’t it seem a little wasteful of the paper?’ pops into my head. What a totally bizarre new perspective… I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about poetry before, and I own a lot of poetry books… It’s interesting that once you can’t read the characters, the space around them becomes so much more vivid. It’s a fantastic piece visually, regardless that it’s unintelligible to me. Large sheer white spaces, Chinese numbering on the inside edge to the page, left-to-right typeset. So INTERESTING!

Typical internal musings of a humanities student.

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Taiwan: Confucius Culture Weekend

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This weekend, I’ve enrolled myself into a World Youth Confucius Camp Culture weekend, to learn a little about Eastern philosophy and religion in Taiwan. Besides learning about the life and times of Confucius himself, we explore the culture that springs up around philosophical thinking: the culture of Confucianism that is prevalent in the Eastern hemisphere from learning about the architectural and decorative construction involved in Taipei’s temples, observing modern and contextual Confucian rites, to lessons on deciphering his readings, acting them and  in the modern day context.

The weekend camp runs in the early summer of each year, and is free to successful applications, so definitely check out their facebook page for details here. Besides being a fantastic introduction to Eastern philosophy, the camp gives an, albeit brief, tour overview of Taiwanese history.

Great trip!

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