Risky Biz: The Kick Ass Women Behind Banana Magazine

We talk to the top bananas about all things AZN.

Kathleen (left) and Vicki (right), the brains behind Banana.

By Sharlene Chiu

I remember the exact moment I discovered Banana, a kick-ass coming together of Asian creatives, discovering, discussing, and collaborating on the ever-changing collective identity, formed by the baddest AZN ladies around, Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso. It was the summer of 2015 and I messaged the Banana tumblr as soon as I could because I was just so damn excited that there was finally a platform for all the cool shit Asians do (and there’s a lot, if I do say so myself!), just to say hello and maybe… let’s be friends? Although, we’ve yet to meet outside of Instagram, it’s been so dope seeing their magazine (now in its 3rd issue, yo!), newsletter (ALL THINGS AZN), and community explode in the last two years. Take a gander at our 3-way Q&A on the real-life banana struggles, running an independent magazine, and being asked the dreaded (and oh so annoying), “So where are you from? No, where are you reeeeeallly from?”

What was the initial fire between the two of you that sparked the creation of Banana?

KT: We had a few margaritas and got real fired up about how we knew so many cool Asians in NYC doing cool shit. We realized we didn’t really have a platform dedicated specifically for us, creative AZNs, so we decided we needed to create that platform so we could work with all our talented friends.

VH: We also really admired how our friends at Street Etiquette were pushing boundaries and shedding a light on black culture today and thought, “How come something like this doesn’t exist for the Asian community?”

It was always so sad and frustrating growing up, not seeing a lot of Asian models in magazines and actors on TV. Who were/are your Asian role models?

KT: Definitely Lucy Liu. I also reallllly loved Zhang Ziyi – I thought she was so beautiful and wanted to look just like her. There were obviously very few, and far between, Asian role models in the media to look up to. I think most Asian-American girls would name the same few: Lucy Liu, Lisa Ling, SuChin Pak, Connie Chung, Michelle Kwan, etc. TBH, I loved and still love Jackie Chan. I always thought his counterparts in movies were so lazy compared to him. He did all his own stunts!

VH: Michelle Kwan and Kaity Tong, the news anchor for PIX1, or WB11 back in the day, were my ultimate role models. I grew up thinking I’d be in broadcast and admired how an Asian-American woman had a voice in television. Looking back, it was definitely frustrating to be so limited in role models but when you’re so used to it at a young age, you’re almost numb to the fact that there was no representation.

Oh, totally and you start to believe that that’s normal, which is so shit. Like most first gen Asian-Americans, the term banana is very real, especially, when growing up and trying to respect your “yellow” values while assimilating to “white” society. What was that battle like for you growing up and ‘til today?

KT: I grew up in a super white city in Texas – Allen, about 20 minutes north of Dallas. Growing up, I was the only Asian in my grade up until the seventh grade. The biggest battle was that I always felt so different, and undesired. Never thought the boys would like me, and was always trying to make sure I wasn’t too Asian, in fear that I’d feel too different from my peers. I’d catch myself wishing my parents raised me in Taiwan, so I wouldn’t always feel like the Asian sidekick friend who never got the boys. What a shitty way to think! As I grew older and moved to more diverse cities, I ended up flocking to make more Asian friends. It’s great to have so many people in my life now that have these shared experiences of what it’s like to be an Asian girl living in America.

VH: I went through such a cultural identity crisis growing up. I come from a very strict and traditional Chinese household, but my personality and interests made it difficult to uphold the conservative values my parents put on me. I always felt like no one else could relate and found myself trying to shed my Asian identity so that I could live a simpler, one-cultured life. I didn’t start to appreciate my heritage until college, because of sheer maturity; and honestly, Banana has made me do a complete 180 on my perspective as an Asian-American as well.

It wasn’t until I started getting older, that I finally started appreciating and embracing what a badass culture we have. What do you say when you get asked the inevitable, “Where are you from? No, where are you originally from?” in cabs, bars, etc.?

KT: Sometimes I answer politely with a tinge of annoyance when I don’t feel like getting into it. However, at bars when someone is trying to hit on me with that question, I definitely will set them straight. I’m from Texas, you fucker.

VH: I like to think that people just don’t know how to phrase their ask. First, I tell them I’m from Brooklyn, and when they say, “No, where are you reaaaallly from?” then I correct them and say “Oh, do you mean what’s my heritage?” They usually realize they fucked up after that. I mean hey, at least they asked and didn’t start talking to you in Japanese assuming you understand. That’s when I pop off of them and show no mercy.

What have been the challenges of running an independent magazine?

KT: The challenge of running an independent print magazine is that the reality is, you just don’t make ANY money from that kind of business. It’s definitely a passion project, we put a lot of our own money into it and work weeknights and weekends on top of our 9-to-5s to get it done.

VH: Time and money are definitely the biggest challenges of independent print.

What are your “regular” jobs?

VH: I’m a fashion publicist.

KT: I’m a strategist at a digital agency.

What does your day-to-day look like when trying to balance the 9-to-5 and running a magazine?

VH: Weekends and nights are completely dedicated to the magazine. Unfortunately, my career field is pretty demanding too!

KT: Working at an agency is already pretty hectic, it definitely bleeds into more than a 9-to-5, and client services relies you to be checking your emails at all hours. It’s definitely a struggle but we have so much heart for Banana that we just sacrifice personal time to meet up and make it work.

I’ve always been fascinated with the evolution of Chinatowns around the world and you guys are experiencing the next generation of it in New York, which you feature in the latest, third issue. How much of this new generation of Chinatown is reflective of first-gen Asian-Americans reclaiming their identity and speaking out?

KT: We’re definitely seeing a little bit of that right now in Chinatown, however it’s probably still a small majority of the neighborhood. The majority is still aging Chinatown residents who have been there and incoming immigrants who want to start new businesses. A lot of the mindset taught to kids growing up in Chinatown was to make their way out. Meaning, first-gens getting higher educations, getting “better jobs,” and moving out. However, there are residents who stay put. Read about some of those people in Issue 003 :).

VH: It’s slow and steady. Residents in Chinatown are very protective of their neighborhood, with many buildings, commercial and residential, being passed down within families. And it’s really up to the new generation to either keep building Chinatown or sell their property for a lot of money. It’s a balance but I’m rooting for the former.

Also in Issue 003, is the experience of the alcohol-induced “Asian Glow,” which is always expected of me anytime I have drinks with new people. What prompted this story?

KT: It was pitched by the photographer who shot the story. We loved the idea of it. It’s time for AZNs out there to embrace the glow. Did you know that taking too much Pepcid to stop the glow can be bad for your heart?

VH: Oh my god that was a hella fun day. We basically got everyone wasted by 2pm and watched the glow unfold. I wrote the piece and was featured in it too! I struggled a lot with accepting my Asian glow, and still do, to some extent. So it was an amazing piece for me to get to write and ultimately take pride in my glow.

KT: I don’t get the glow. I always considered myself lucky, but I definitely was getting FOMO during the shoot because it’s definitely a phenomenon that bonds Asians.

Since starting Banana, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the AZN culture you’ve been dedicated to showcase?

KT: What has been amazing to learn, but not really that surprising, is the Asian experience not only in America, but across the globe. In other “white” cultures like around Europe and Australia, the experience is so similar. We’re dedicated to sharing more stories across the world.

Have you discovered more of your own self-identity through doing Banana?

KT: I spent so many years trying to shed my Asian identity, trying to fit in. I feel 1000% better now that I have learned to embrace and celebrate my culture.

VH: We’re learning about our culture the same time as our readers. For me, it’s not about discovering my self-identity but more about appreciating it and showing others, through Banana, to appreciate it too.