Book: Gene Luen Yang. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. http://geneyang.com/american-born-chinese
Genre: Fictional Graphic Novel
Audience: Grades 9-12
Summary: This graphic novel illuminates racial slurs and stereotyping towards the Asian community, including the Asian American community. Yang breaks the novel into three different stories. The first is one about the Monkey King who is based off of an ancient Chinese legend. He was a well respected ruler and practiced the many forms of Kung Fu. He wanted respect from other deities, and wanted to be recognized as a real ruler but was turned down and humiliated because of his lack of shoes and therefore civilized nature. He goes on a rampage in various Kung Fu forms, until he is confronted by “He who is” and is restrained by a pile of rocks for a very long time. The second story is about Jin who is a Chinese American boy who moves to a new school and is immediately stereotyped due to being Asian. Jin wants to fit in at his new school and wants respect from the popular boys in his class. Jin meets Wei-Chun, a student coming in from Taiwan who quickly become best friends. He also develops strong feelings for Amelia, a white girl from his class who seems to disregard stereotypes. The third story focuses on a white American boy named Danny who is burdened every year by his overtly stereotyped Asian cousin Chin-Kee who is believed to be set out to ruin his life. Danny struggles with accepting Chin-Kee for who he is and is ultimately embarrassed by his blunt and seemingly ignorant (towards American culture) personality.
Themes: Assimilation is a major theme in American Born Chinese. One view on assimilation, defines assimilation as “becoming whiter.” The duality of being Asian American is explored in the graphic novel largely through the character Jin. Jin is Asian American and is struggling with embracing his Asian heritage through befriending Wei-Chun. He tries very hard to present himself as American by changing his hair to look like his white American classmate Greg in order to impress a girl, or how he teaches Wei-Chun American sayings so he too will fit in more seamlessly instead of standing out. In all three stories, there is a struggle with the concept of being Asian, whether the character is embracing their heritage or trying to accept it. Chin-Kee has no problem with his ethnicity, and although he reflects every negative Asian stereotype that exists, he still remains true to himself. Danny is ashamed of Chin-Kee, but in the end we realize it’s because he is also Asian but he has put a lot work into assimilating into the American culture.
Self Image: Although this novel is largely about ethnicity, the characters also experience feelings of dissatisfaction with their physical image in general. Jin first has a problem with his identity because he believes the girl he likes is into someone else, someone who looks more American. He first perms his hair, then ends up with an entire Caucasian identity (Danny). The Monkey King is discouraged after the gods throw him out of a dinner party because he is a monkey. Instead of going back to his mountain and doing his own thing, he goes into isolation and masters various disciplines that help him change his body form
Connections: American Born Chinese is an excellent choice for the classroom setting. Stereotyping and racism are still very prevalent in society today. Teaching a graphic novel that can be read as a satire on how Asian Americans or Asians in general are viewed within American can reflect upon greater issues such as racism within historical contexts and how it is still seen today. This graphic novel can help the classroom explore what Yang has greatly emphasized in his text about dealing with self identity, assimilation, racism and stereotyping. Texts like this can help students become aware of stereotyping practices they engage in and help empathize with other cultures. Some texts are able to help awareness, and in turn making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Reactions: I enjoyed this graphic novel. For the most part it was easy to follow and was read more like a satire, which brought humor to the pressing issues of stereotyping. I liked that there were three different stories and appreciated how Yang connected them all in the end. The underlying messages of needing to overcome prejudices and appreciate who you are and were made to be is something that anyone can relate to.
Reception: Powerful Themes, Great Sense of Humor,January 9, 2007
K. Nishikawa from Chicago IL shares her views on American Born Chinese
“This book is a truly stellar contribution to the graphic novel genre. Jin Wang’s coming-of-age story is pitch-perfect in its attention to visual detail as well as its “feel” for adolescent dialogue. Not content to tell this story “straight,” Gene Yang introduces two other narratives — those of the legendary Monkey King and of the sitcom characters Danny and Chin-Kee — to add multiple layers of meaning to Jin’s struggles to fit in.
It shoud be noted that, even though Yang balances three stories (which ultimately converge) in this book, Jin’s story serves as the emotional core of the novel. The Monkey King’s and Chin-Kee’s stories represent different poles of Jin’s identity as a Chinese American — extreme, identity-negating self-reliance, on the one hand, and extreme, caricatured self-hatred, on the other. The novel does a brilliant job of drawing us into the world of a teenager who engages these extremes as a matter of “growing up Asian American” — a paradoxical subject of repulsion and desire, exclusion and belonging.
Don’t get me wrong, though: while Yang’s themes are undeniably powerful, his writing is just really, really funny. The Monkey King is raucously self-involved; Chin-Kee is both sad and strangely self-aware of his own caricaturedness (i.e., his “kung fu” moves are all named after “Chinese” dishes, like “Mooshu Fist”), and one scene involving Jin, bathroom soap, and his love interest Amelia had me in stitches. Which is to say it’s nice to see that important themes of identity and cultural belonging can be explored in such a playful manner.
Credit to Yang, then, for not taking himself so seriously, and for giving us a profound meditation on “growing up ethnic” that looks, sounds, and *feels* right. “