Book: Gene Luen Yang. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy, Graphic Novel.
Audience: Grades 6-12 (And up)
Summary: American Born Chinese is a graphic novel with three individual story lines that eventually tie together at the end. One story follows along the lines of the Chinese myth of the Monkey King and his subsequent struggles to become a god instead of always remaining a monkey. Another follows the story of American teen Danny who is visited and constantly embarrassed by his horrifically stereotyped Asian cousin Chin-Kee. The final story line follows Asian American teen Jin Wang and his struggles to fit into an American school while being painfully aware of being different. The stories eventually merge with Jin and the Monkey King casting off the stereotypical representation of Chin-Kee and the two coming to accept themselves for who they are and what they cannot change.
Themes: The most prominent theme that can be observed in this novel is that of ethnicity. Jin constantly has to struggle with his Asian heritage and the bullying and stereotyping that comes along with it, while Chin-Kee is a living embodiment of the Asian stereotype (complete with a carry-out box of cat gizzards). Jin’s different ethnicity leads to painful questions and comments from woefully ignorant adults and peers who are unaware of who he is and where he comes from, as well as the histories behind his ethnicity. Chin-Kee’s ethnicity also illicit such questions, but he seems to be woefully oblivious to the hurts and insults and, in fact, seems to revel in them.
Another prominent theme that can be seen throughout the novel is that of identity, which in a way can be related to the theme of ethnicity. Jin and the Monkey King go throughout the novel in a constant struggle to try and figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. The Monkey King constantly tries to change his position from a lowly monkey to that of a god through hard work, meditation, determination, and mastering martial arts. Jin is always trying to fit into the image of the primarily white society that his school is made up by trying to quash his Asian ethnicity. Eventually the Monkey King comes to terms with who he is and realizes that no matter how hard he tries that he cannot change what his is at the deepest level, and Jin comes to realize this as well via help from the Monkey King and his son.
Connections: This book would definitely be useful when used in a history class examining the role of the Chinese (and other Asian ethnicities) in the history of America and how the old perceptions of Asians have formed how our current American society views them. This book would work well with other book that deal with issues of ethnic relations and their various historical contexts. Using this book with other texts that examine ethnic identity also provides a teacher with a way to initiate group discussions in which students can examine and talk about how ethnic stereotype affect their lives and what they can do to avoid them.
Reactions: I really enjoyed this novel. The art was crisp and clean and it made it easy to read the facial expressions of the characters and to catcher subtle details from said expressions. I really liked the background Chinese mythology as it helped to add a certain sort of texture to the novel and helped to add more ethnic identity to the story. My only problem with the novel is that it may need some historic context to be mentioned and explained a bit before a reader reads the novel, as some of the jokes/puns/satire could easily be taken as racist. I feel that and introductory section that goes over some of the more subtle details and histories that can be found in the text would be beneficial to younger and older readers alike who are ignorant to the backgrounds that shape the novel.
Reception: An author at Blogcritics.org stated that “This final story reveals how all three tales are related in a very cool, but unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil here. All I will say is that while the connection does make sense, I didn’t see it coming and was pleasantly surprised.
American Born Chinese is a book for all ages and has a subtle way of handling racism without being preachy or beating you over the head with a message. The art is simple, but not too simple that it fails to convey its point.”
A comic blogger on WordPress.com also said that “The main theme of American Born Chinese is that of growing up understanding ethnic diversity, from the point of view of the ethnicity. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be autobiographical for Yang or not. The message of acceptance of this difference of ethnicity doesn’t come out as strongly as it could have been. The protagonist doesn’t learn anything really about his own culture that makes him special or unique, just that he’s different and that’s a-okay.”