American Born Chinese
Book: Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006.
Genre: Graphic Novel
Audience: Grades 10-12
Read Aloud: Coming Soon
Summary: This book tells the story of Jin Wang and his journey of appreciating his ethnic identity as a Chinese student growing up in America. The book opens with the fable of the infamous Chinese story of the Monkey King, a character who is mocked by the rest of the god’s in heaven because of who he is- a monkey. Enraged, the Monkey King proceeds to develop many disciplines to will prevent him from being ridiculed any further. With that precursor of a story, we are then introduced to Jin Wang and him trying to fit in with other students in an American High School. His only real friend is another Asian, named Wei-Chen Sun, however Wei-Chen is mocked because of his ethnic characteristics. This provokes Jin to try and run from his Asian identity altogether. It is only after the ancient Monkey King actually comes to talk to Jin and tells of his own personal exploits does Jin understand that being yourself should be more important than fitting in.
Themes: The first would easily be Ethnic Identity because of Jin’s search for his identity throughout the story. Coming to terms with ones ancestry and understanding who you really are, are both different than wanting to be accepted by one’s peers. While Jin does do the following, it is specifically tied to his Ethnic Background that separates him from others. He has to examine himself to see who he really is- and only starts to understand this when he meets the Monkey King, a direct tie to Chinese mythology.
Acceptance: This could be very easily substituted for ‘Adolescence’ because what Jin is going through in this story is a universal plight that all teenagers go through. He has his first crush, his first kiss, and his ultimate pursuit for acceptance from his peers. Gene Luen Yang does a great job at illustrating the simple artwork that reveals the relationships here and makes them surprisingly three dimensional. This only aides in illustrating the idea that while relationships are complex and the center of our attention most of the time, knowing who we are underneath shouldn’t be.
Connections: This is an excellent book to depict adolescence dealing with coming to terms with their cultural identity. So many references to the Chinese mythology exist here that proper explanation of these is a necessary must for 95% of all students. The book itself is not very self explanatory- the plot is rather abstract and needs a class discussion or perhaps a project to clarify the plot of the book, not to mention the themes and the students coming to terms with their own Ethnic Identities and how they relate to their peers and the rest of the world.
Reactions: I thought the book was a good read; however it was hard to follow the plot personally. I felt like the book could have explained itself a little bit more, the line between fantasy and realistic fiction blurs so much that it’s hard to understand the plot- especially with the part about Jin actually being Danny. I think that if this was explained to me, I would have gotten the evolution of Jin’s relationship to his peers quicker.
American Born Chinese’s ability to deal honestly with the pains of adolescent isolation make it so compellingly readable. Perhaps Gene Luen Yang’s occupation as a high-school teacher gives him the authenticity this novel uses so effectively, or perhaps he truly can tap into the angst and agitation of the teenage years. Either way, it works so well that you can’t help but feel immediately moved and caught up in it.- John Hogan, GraphicNovelReporter.com
Yang collaborated with Derek Kirk Kim on the comic Duncan’s Kingdom some time ago, with Kim soon after having a break-out hit in the form of Same Difference and Other Stories. This, then, is Yang’s own break-out project; if this doesn’t put him on the map in comics and give him the attention that he rightfully deserves, I don’t know what will. Beautifully written and drawn, and coupled with extremely high production values from publisher First Second, American Born Chinese is a fantastic book from start to finish. Highly recommended.- Greg McElhatton, Readaboutcomics.com