The Surprising Consistency of Youthful Anxieties Across Time
By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

Yeh Hsing-chiao, the main character in The Banana Sprout, is attending school in a city far from home, but when the relatives he was staying with must leave town for work, Yeh is forced to move into the student dormitory halfway through the semester. Yeh’s first official meeting with his roommate, the infamous oddball Untaro, makes for one of the most jaw-dropping scenes in the entire book: As Yeh passes by the dormitory he delights at the cool relief of a gentle, misting rain, but only seconds later, alerted by the dorm matron’s litany of curses, he looks up just in time to see a curly-haired youth zipping back up his pants before candidly calling down: “My bad!” It is only then that Yeh comes to the belated realization that the gentle rain he’d delighted in was no rain at all….

Yet, once they become roommates, Yeh quickly realizes that Untaro is not just some profligate libertine – his Japanese roommate’s room is filled with all kinds of books, both in Japanese and foreign languages. Indeed, he is such a voracious reader that even one of his teachers must confess to being less well-read. Untaro often skips class, but he spends most of his time immersed in independent study and has even mastered German, a language that remains elusive to Yeh. 

Yeh’s diligence and strict obedience stand in stark relief to Untaro’s freewheeling personality. At first, Yeh’s oddball roommate is little more than a constant source of annoyance to him, but through their daily interactions and insights from a teacher, he finally realizes that Untaro’s impulsive behavior is a manifestation of the same uncertainty about the future that Yeh himself feels. After a heartfelt discussion, the two come to a conclusion: given that they both feel uncertain about the future, perhaps they can undertake some common cause to begin looking for the answers they seek. They decide to deploy their respective literary strengths in the making of a new, relatively open-minded literature journal that will offer a challenge to the strict conventionalism of the school journal Soaring Wind.   

If the time period in which The Banana Sprout transpires was not clearly stated, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a modern, Japanese high school bildungsroman. Many hallmarks of the Japanese coming-of-age tales are present: two young, likable friends with polar-opposite personalities combine forces in pursuit of some ambitious objective – their enthusiasm and drive can be inspiring, their antics both galling and hilarious, and at times the realizations they come to as they grow can cast the reader into a melancholic gloom. Yet, once we learn when and where this novel takes places, it is hard not to marvel at the author, Zuo Hsuan’s talents; this charming and poignant story is the product of the author’s meticulous distillation of a vast amount of historical research. If not for Zuo Hsuan’s elegant reconjuring, even the average Taiwanese reader would find it difficult to imagine what life must have been like in Taihoku High School during the 1930s.  

Taihoku High School was the predecessor to what is now National Taiwan Normal University. During Japanese rule, the school was a seven-year, all-boys, elite academy consisting of a four-year middle school and a three-year college preparatory program. The four-year middle school (called the “Basic Program”) accepted graduates of elementary schools, while the college preparatory program (called the “Advanced Program”) consisted of students that had graduated from the Basic Program and were automatically matriculated, as well as middle school students from other schools who tested into the program. Because graduates of the Taihoku High School could directly enroll in the Japanese Imperial Universities (the predecessors of Tokyo University, Kyoto University, and National Taiwan University) without taking entrance exams, competition among prospective students was fierce – of the 160 students admitted to the Advanced Program every year, less than thirty were Taiwanese, with the rest consisting of Japanese students. Regardless of their nationality, any student seen wearing the Taihoku High School uniform would likely have been regarded in the much the same way as the bookstore proprietress in the graphic novel saw them – as future doctors and influential politicians in the making.

Interestingly, this academic “cream of the crop” was far from a bunch of nerdy bookworms – much like the banana leaves that wreathed their school crest, they were full of liveliness and exuberance. The lax campus regulations created the ultimate environment for students to engage in self-guided exploration. Not only were they allowed to pursue whatever academic interests and extracurricular activities they pleased, arming themselves with all the basic expertise any budding intellectual may need, they were also allowed the freedom to experience life unbound by restrictions. As such, some students affected a disheveled and slovenly appearance like Untaro, while others could be seen reveling in late night sessions of song and dance, beating on drums, locked arm-in-arm.… This bold and unrestrained campus culture likely blurred the ethnic lines between Japanese and Taiwanese. In an otherwise strictly regimented colonial society, this tiny campus became a rare oasis of freedom and liberalism. 

The question is, will modern readers be able to relate to these youths of ninety years ago? In fact, this question did not even cross my mind while reading – I was carried off by the meticulous detail and clean precision of Zuo Hsuan’s prose, and became immersed in the eccentricities and surprising twists of Yeh and Untaro’s world. From a modern vantage, their mindset and behavior vary only slightly from that of today’s highschoolers or college students. The uncertainty they feel towards themselves, their peers and their new environment is entirely relatable to modern audiences. Perhaps, as the story develops further, we will see conflicts of race, gender, and agency which are more specific to that period, but prior to that I assume readers will have just one wish: to see more of these youngsters who, like the banana sprouts of their insignia, embody limitless potential.