Book Title: American Born Chinese
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Young Adult
Page Count: 240
Format: Ebook (library copy)
Reading time: 1 hour
Date Finished: 1/11/17
My impressions: Now this is interesting, particularly after reading American Chinatown a few days back. This graphic novel includes three stories that at first seem to be different from each other, but which are woven together as the book goes on towards a central narrative. And it’s a really good one, too – a perspective on what it means to be an Asian American and some of the baggage and outright racism that comes with having a different ethnic identity in America.
The first of these stories is a retelling of the Monkey King legend, and Yang does a great job with the material, faithfully retelling the story but also capturing the cartoonish fun of it. (It’s actually made me want to read a longer form version of Journey to the West, so don’t be surprised if I do before the year’s over!) It’s hard to believe that the mythology of the Monkey King could play into the other two stories, but it does, and in a powerful way – the Monkey King’s desire to be something other than himself becomes a major metaphor (and an actual plot device) later on in the book.
The second involves a much more realistic tale of a boy name Jin Wang who is trying to fit in during his time at an American middle school where there are very few Asian Americans. Jin’s always had a fascination with Transformers, and it’s clear he has a deep personal identification with the idea of wanting to be something other than what he looks like. His best friend is a boy from Taiwan who Jin disdains and sometimes envies; while Jin wants to grab the attention of the cute blonde Amelia in his class, his friend dates a Japanese girl and doesn’t seem too interested in trying to fit in as a white American. Jin does some crazy things to get her attention, and though she’s interested, her friends eventually push him away from interacting with her. Jin eventually desires to sell his soul in exchange for transforming into something different.
The third story involves a high school boy named Danny who seems to be living in a sitcom version of Jin’s life. He, too, wants to get the attention of a cute blonde girl, but he’s visited every year by his cousin Chin-kee, a (literally) yellow man who speaks in awful stereotypes and who represents every terrible racist idea of how white people have depicted the Chinese throughout the 20th century, including battling with kung fu moves named after American Chinese menu items. Danny can’t seem to rid himself of the irritating Chin-kee, and his interactions with him eventually lead to his switching schools every year. The sitcom theme is very pronounced, too; every time Chin-kee does something “funny,” the panel is accompanied by a laugh track.
Somehow, all of these stories converge, and the ending is quite thoughtful and deep. Though I am reading this book as a white male who has never experienced the racism, stereotypes, microaggressions and xenophobia that characters like Jin Wang have, I’m grateful for books like this that give me an insight into their world and perspectives; it’s interesting and powerful stuff.
I’m also going to have to read more of Gene Luen Yang’s work; if it’s anywhere near as good as what I see in American Born Chinese, I’m excited to track it down!