All Those Bananas

Photo by Rhonwyn Hagedorn
Although I was always a regular contestant for elocution contests in school, public speaking still gives me occasional butterflies in my stomach.
The most unnerving is impromptu speaking.  

My whole body goes on alert whenever I have to give a speech on the spot because the scheduled speaker has just developed a sore throat or has just left due to a quarrel with his wife. 

The first minute of the speech is the hardest.  My mind goes blank when I look out and see hundreds of pairs of eyes staring back at me. 

Coming out with something meaningful and appropriate for the occasion in an audience of total strangers is more than just challenging.

The most difficult time of all is when the organizers tell me to "lighten up the whole place so we don't all fall asleep". 

Closing my eyes for several seconds, I often muster courage and inspiration by bringing myself back to the night when I was given thunderous applause for my first impromptu speech.
I was one of a handful of women among 200 College of Agriculture students attending a public speaking class in a huge lecture hall at my university in Canada. Everyone was Canadian, except me. 

My relationship with most of them was limited to quick smiles and an impersonal "hi'.  A few of them knew that I was from Malaysia but they had no idea about our lifestyle. 

Coming from the prairie farms, my classmates were used to animals - cattle, horses, pigs, dogs and sheep.  They helped their families in husbandry chores such as mating, feeding and birthing, and therefore were familiar with animal anatomy and behaviors.

They were vibrant young men with hormones bursting from their seams. Our classes were often filled with jokes about animals and the human anatomy.

They viewed the world from young male farmers' eyes, whereas I looked at everything from my Ipoh eyes -- hawker stalls, durian, keow teow, Ipoh chicken, fish balls, and nasi lemak.  
It was a dark, cold winter night.  The wind howled relentlessly.   "Ssshh, ssshh, ssshh", bone-chilling gusts of wind seeped through the tiny slits between the windows and the walls. 

Although I was dressed in a thick wool sweater, I shivered from frightful anticipation  -- twenty of us would be chosen at random to give impromptu speeches.  The score would contribute to our final exam score.

My classmates seemed to be very relaxed about the evening.  They were chewing gum, chit-chatting and listening to their Walkmen.  "They have all done impromptu speaking in high schools.  They know what to do!  Me, sure die-one!"  I thought nervously.

The class was silent when Professor H went up the stage.  "Ladies and gentlemen, this evening is going to be exciting.  Some of you'll get a chance to hone your impromptu speaking skills.  I'll randomly select the lucky ones through your student numbers.  When I call your number, come up to the rostrum and pick a topic from this box.  Each of you will have five minutes.  I'll be your timekeeper.   After all the speeches, you'll vote the best speaker for the evening."

A student went up the stage when his number was announced.  He gingerly picked up a piece of paper from the box and read his topic to us, "Driving a tractor".

"Piece of cake." He said to the microphone.  He talked non-stop until Professor H rang the bell for "time's up".   Another student was called. She talked about her best friend.  The next student stammered on his speech about downhill skiing.   Others spoke on subjects ranging from farm work to university life.  Some speakers had interesting stories while others rattled on and on.

The night was going smoothly without any excitement.  We clapped at the end of each speech and Professor H nodded his head, "Good job."  

I heaved a big sigh when the second-to-last speaker finished her speech.  "It won't be me, I know it."  I thought to myself as I relaxed my near two-hour upright sitting position and slouched on the chair. 

"783!…..  Ss-sau…. Ching…. Choooong, the last lucky gal for the evening." Professor H's big blue eyes scanned the hall from above his bi-focals.

My heart skipped.  My body stiffened.  My toes numbed.  My fingers froze. My cheeks burnt.

And my butt hurt. 

"Coming up?"  A bolt of  thunder struck the air.

I couldn't remember what happened until Professor H came to the rostrum and lowered the microphone to my height.  "You're a small lady!"   He smiled. "The last piece of  paper in the box has your topic!"

With trembling hands, I unfolded the paper and saw the word "Banana".  My heart did a somersault while my mind ran like a headless chicken screaming silently,  "Haah? Baah-naah-naah-s!"

Closing my eyes, I called silently for my ancestors to bless me.  I saw in my mind a familiar bunch of "pisang emas" hanging on a long hook from the wooden ceiling beam of the grocery shop near my street in Ipoh. 

Ah Poh (my granmother) and I showed up every evening to buy a bunch of bananas.  

"Only "dua-puluh kupang" (Malay: twenty cents) for my good neighbors.  Very good 'pisang', just ripe."  Hap Seng, the big bellied proprietor gave us his usual big smile that revealed his two golden front teeth.

I blinked my eyes. 200 pairs of Canadian blue, grey, brown and green eyes glared mercilessly at me.

"OK, ready?"  Professor H pressed the bell.

I took a deep breath and blurted,  "I come from Malaysia.  It is a tropical country, very hot, not like here, very cold.  Because it's hot, we have a lot of bananas.  Here, it's so cold you can't grow any bananas." 

The students smiled.

"Banana is a fruit.  It is long and round.  But sometimes it is short and tiny."  Someone snickered.
"In Malaysia, we have many kinds of bananas.  There are big bananas and small bananas.  Some banana skins are brown.  Some are golden, some are yellow, and some have black spots all over.  The bananas inside the skin are milky in color. But here, your banana skins are green and your bananas inside are very white." 

Cackles bellowed from the audience.

"I don't like your bananas.  They are too big, too hard, too white and they don't have any taste."  Giggles reverberated across the hall as my mind wondered what was going on.

"I like our bananas better.  They are small but they taste very good." Surprised by the outburst of laughter, I stared at the audience with disbelief.

When the laughter subsided, I continued, "The best bananas are the small ones.  They taste sweet and their smell is so delicious that you want to eat more and more until you're full of bananas." 

Another round of laughter swept across the hall. 

My nervousness increased as I searched my mind for what I had said wrong.

"Bananas are a very strange fruit.  It becomes black and soft if you don't eat it after a few days.  So you should eat the banana right away as soon as you see it. " The audience roared with laughter.

"Bananas are my favorite fruit.  I've been eating bananas all my life. I eat them any time of the day.  But here you eat bananas only during breakfast." Confused, I waited for the laughter to wane before I continued.

"I eat my bananas by holding them upright between my thumb and my index finger.  I just eat it like this without anything else."  A barrage of cackles and whistles burst out.  I was so confused that my legs were trembling.

"But here, you eat your bananas only after you've chopped them into pieces." My hands trembled as I waited for the laughter to subside. "You eat them with bread and other things."
"I don't think bananas taste good if you don't eat it by holding the whole thing in your hand.  You've to eat it the right way if you want to enjoy a banana." The bell rang in the midst of loud cheers.

I concluded quickly, "I love bananas.  Everyone loves bananas. Don't you love bananas?" 

The hall erupted in an uproar.  "Of course, we do!" the audience responded.

My classmates cheered as I trembled down the stage.

The class voted me as the best speaker for the evening.

By Chong Sheau Ching



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