American Born Chinese: Review
I don't read nearly enough graphic novels, and I safely say that most of my friends don't either! So that's why I was excited to post a review for American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. It's got amazing art, a fantastic story that melds cultures together, and an earnestness that you can't deny.
All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...
Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god...
Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life. Danny's a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...
These three apparently unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, in a modern fable that is hilarious, poignant and action-packed. American Born Chinese is an amazing rise, all the way up to the astonishing climax--and confirms what a growing number of readers already know: Gene Yang is a major talent.
"You know Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years of imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey."
As the summary describes, we follow three seemingly separate stories throughout this graphic novel. We're introduced to the Monkey King first, and I was unnaturally excited about that. I was born in Year of the Monkey, and the Monkey King was my favorite character/hero/folk tale from a very young age. I remember watching a serialized Cantonese drama about it, and finding it so hilarious and relatable. Here's a walking, talking immortal monkey, who's technically a deity with mastery of the martial arts. But he's not accepted by the gods because at the end of the day, he's still just a monkey. For a young girl who didn't see others who looked like her in the things she watched, listened to, or read, this was a compelling storyline. I was fortune enough to grow up in a very diverse community, with children of immigrants from around the world. So while I never felt isolated in my community, I did feel a disconnect between the bubble I lived in and the rest of the country. This became so much more apparent when I went to college in Maine and met people who had never interacted with a Chinese person before.
That's what I love about American Born Chinese. It describes different facets of growing up Asian-American, the identity politics of being nationally American but culturally Chinese, the feeling of familial pressure, the social burdens of wanting to fit in so badly. The biggest thing that I realized in college was the weird tension between Asian American students (those born in the states) and international Asian students. One was not "Asian enough" and the other would never be "American enough." I had never thought that this polarity existed among the, forgive my crassness, "Asian spectrum," and American Born Chinese really explores this in depth. (P.S. Kevin Kwan also satirizes what it means to be "Chinese enough" in his bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians!)
Published in 2000, this graphic novel seems to be ahead of its time. It tackles uncomfortable stereotypes by forcing readers to contend with Chin-Kee, a socially clueless Chinese immigrant who almost seems to purposely reinforce every stereotype there is about Chinese men (down to the distinctive Chinese accent). I cringed every time his chapters came up. But putting me outside of my comfort zone is exactly what I want from a book like this, that makes me think about my identity and my upbringing and the current state of Asian American (mis)representation.
Coupled with expressive illustrations by the amazing Gene Luen Yang, whose work you might recognize from the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels or Superman #41-50, American Born Chinese is absolutely brilliant. I say this because books about APIA identity are not only hard to come by, but they can be difficult to read. Either they're ethnographic texts with deep research, or they're hard to relate to for people who aren't APIA. Using the graphic novel as a medium, any type of reader can easily pick this up and appreciate the art and story. Making these type of stories more accessible and friendlier to all readers is so important to making people aware of these social stigmas.
I rate American Born Chinese 5/5 stars!