American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
I first encountered Gene Luen Yang when his comic Prime Baby was serialized in The New York Times. It was, quite frankly, adorable—a little sci-fi tale about a young boy coming to terms with his baby sister and her ability to spit out pods filled with the most helpful and cheerful aliens known to man. The art was simple and appealing, the characters fantastically human, and the jokes were funny. I think you can still read it here—I highly recommend it. So when I saw American Born Chinese on the graphic novel shelf at my local library (why yes, my local libraries are awesome), I decided to take it home.
American Born Chinese follows three seemingly disparate stories—the story of the Chinese legend the Monkey King, second-generation Chinese-American middle-school student Jin Wang, and a sitcom featuring Danny, who is plagued every year by a visit from his cousin Chin-Kee, the personification of Chinese stereotypes. Through these three stories that ultimately interlink, Yang explores Chinese identity in the United States and the trials of growing up as a minority.
I once flipped through the beginning of American Born Chinese in a bookstore, but couldn’t get past Chin-Kee—but that was a few years ago. On this read through, I was thoroughly impressed with what Yang was saying with deceptively simple stories. Each story deals with a main character who wants to fit in with the majority but can’t, simply because the majority rejects who they are underneath their desperate attempts at assimilation. I think the reason I couldn’t get past Chin-Kee’s story a few years ago was because I couldn’t see how it fit this overarching theme; but it ultimately does, and turns its situational comedy into something cruel when Danny tries to confide in a friend of his how embarrassed and horrified by Chin-Kee he is… and fails. It’s heart-breaking to watch Jin identify with his distant, white American tormentors over the Taiwanese immigrant Wei Chen Sun and his struggles to fit into a culture that end up leaving his heritage by the way side.
Ultimately, American Born Chinese is about successfully reconciling who you are with your culture in a way that’s healthy for your identity by showing us three protagonists that cope poorly—The Monkey King’s efforts to be human come with a new found distaste for monkey culture, Danny denies having any Chinese heritage, and Jin Wang polices the actions of his circle of friends, telling them to not be “F.O.B” (fresh off the boat) and changing what food he brings to school once he’s accused of eating dogs. Tying the three stories together in the end isn’t just a pat ending for the graphic novel, but a way for all three (well… oh, but I shouldn’t spoil anything!) to reach and share the conclusion that it’s better to be, ultimately, yourself, heritage and all. I’m always impressed by works of fiction that, despite seeming small, have repercussions beyond itself, and American Born Chinese is an approachable work that does just that. It’s a young adult work that’s appropriate for all ages, which I always appreciate.
Yang’s art style is round, clean, and bright—the coloring is completely flat, but it works for a deceptively simple trio of stories and probably appeals to a younger crowd. His panels are ultimately functional and nothing too groundbreaking, but their basic utility allows the story to come across with little to no obstacles, which I appreciate. It’s very attractive and lends itself both to slapstick comedy and more somber moments, which allows the audience to put the story of the Monkey King and Danny on the same level as Jin Wang’s story. And, I have to admit, I’m impressed by the quality of the hardcover copy I rented from the library—the pages are thick and glossy, and it even comes with a ribbon for a bookmark. I wish I could say more about it as a graphic novel; I wonder if there’s an art appreciation class I could take while I’m in college to help with analyzing graphic novels. Or perhaps it’s just because everything in American Born Chinese applies itself towards this specific theme, even the very toys Jin Wang and his friends play with.
Bottom line: A deceptively simple trio of stories about the Asian-American experience, American Born Chinese ponders how to reconcile your culture, identity, and heritage in a way that’s accessible to readers of all ages. Remarkably well-executed.
I rented this book from the public library.