“It’s Easy to Become Anything You Wish…So Long as You’re Willing to Forfeit Your Soul”
The first time I was ever assigned a book in school with characters I could relate to was in tenth grade. The book was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Since then, I’ve read it another two times and met the author. As I get older and read it again, I’ve been able to pick out new things and find myself relating to the story in different ways.
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that tells three stories. One hails from the Chinese fable of the Monkey King who no longer wants to be a monkey, but a deity. Another is the story of Jin Wang, a child of immigrants, who moves to a new neighborhood where he’s the only Chinese-American student. The third story is about Danny, a white, blond haired, popular kid, who feels embarrassed and humiliated by the annual visits of his cousin Chin-Kee, a character who personifies multiple negative stereotypes about Asians. While the three stories seem independent, they slowly begin to parallel and intertwine was the book unfolds.
The story is told as a graphic novel, allowing Yang to play with different forms of storytelling through colored illustrations. The Monkey King is a kung-fu master. Multiple panels illustrate him practicing or fighting in the style of superhero comics, complete with sound effects and colorful backgrounds. Danny and Chin-Kee’s parts are reminiscent of television cartoons. The first time we’re introduced to their story, a title page with Chin-Kee’s head and the words “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” appears as if introducing a cartoon. Yang then opens and closes each of their sections with wide location shots, underlined with applause. Chin-Kee’s panels are also underlined with laughter or applause. I think these styles add variety and set a distinct tone for each section. They definitely make it more entertaining to read and bring the characters to life.
A major theme of American Born Chinese is the pressure to assimilate. At the beginning of the book, the Monkey King is rejected from a party thrown by the gods just because he’s a monkey. He returns to Flower-Fruit Mountain humiliated and begins working on transforming himself to fit into their society under his new title of “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.” This pressure is also seen in Jin’s story. He begins to pack sandwiches to school after being bully about dumplings and tells Wei-Chen, his new classmate from Taiwan, to speak English because he’s in America. Reading these scenes stuck out to me because going through school, I definitely felt the pressure to assimilate. Consciously and unconsciously, I tried to fit in with my peers. I don’t remember facing blunt bullying about how I looked or things I did differently like Jin or the Monkey King, but there’s always that voice at be back of your mind telling you those are the reasons why the other kids don’t want to be around you. As the targeted audience is young adults, I think the book does a good job portraying what it is like to grow up as an Asian-American or what it’s like to grow up period.
American Born Chinese also centers it themes on stereotypes surrounding the Asian demographic. The character Chin-Kee embodies a multitude of stereotypes from his name, a homonym for the derogative name, “chinky,” for Chinese people, to the way he is illustrated and the way he talks and acts. About halfway through the book, I started to find it painful to read. Yang assaults you with all of these stereotypes to the point where you question if they actually exist, but the reality is that they do. I’ve seen them in real life, heard them used as humor on television, and I’ve heard them said to me. I think this book tackles stereotypes in a way that makes you confront them and I think it’s an important message for everyone to learn the impact they can have on others.
American Born Chinese, without a doubt, is my favorite graphic novel. I think it wraps important messages about stereotypes and racisms in a great coming of age story that is very accessible to younger audiences and will make an impact on older audiences. It’s a quick and fun read that I encourage everyone to read. On my third read, I would still give it 5/5 stars.