American Born Chinese [Review]

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang
First Second Books, 2006

American Born Chinese is a graphic novel about the experience of Asian Americans trying to come to terms with their heritage in mainstream American society. It was published in 2006, so it’s a few years short of its much-deserved twentieth anniversary –- it’s still in print. It’s even inspired a series on Disney+ which has many of the same actors from Everything Everywhere All at Once, the much-acclaimed multiverse movie released in 2021.

Despite the simplicity of its artwork, the novel is rich and complex. It intertwines three different stories: the realistic everyday one of Jin Wang, a teenage boy born in the US to Chinese-born parents who moves to a new area – and school — where he finds himself a Asian; the Chinese folk tale of Monkey, whose ambitions, and his achievement of them, don’t negate the fact he remains a monkey in a world of human gods; and Chin-Kee, a sort of cartoon superhero who takes the form of a stereotypical Chinese, buck teeth, yellow skin and everything, whose superhero is disturbing gringos. In a sort of magic realism, Chin-Kee is the cousin of Danny, a typical American white boy, and causes him much embarrassment at school. And yes, the Chin-Kee pun is deliberate by the author.

I’ve pretty much defined the whole tale in the above description. Jin’s attempts to fit in include having a crush on a white girl (who crushes on him back), perming his hair to resemble that of a white classmate, and betraying a loyal friend, a fellow Asian boy, badly. These are all efforts by him to refute his real self. At the same time in the folklore world, Monkey takes on feat after feat, only to be told by the Supreme God himself he can’t become what he isn’t – a flea-bit, hairy monkey – and buried beneath a mountain until he learns humility by helping a holy man on his journey to the west.

Gene Luen Yang, Illustration for American Born Chinese

When Jin is informed by the white jock he admires that he is not to date his white girl crush anymore, his anger is so grow he transforms into… Danny, the white boy so haunted by the antics of Chin-Kee. This leads to a climactic showdown where the loose ends are tied up in mythic fashion.

I loved this story, even though the characters are foreign to me (I’m adult, white, and female.) It was perhaps a bit too obscure in places. The finale left me scratching my head, though that may be because I was so engrossed I rushed through it. But in the end, it is clear Jin has reconciled with who he was and who he is, and receives a hint of who he may be.

A five star read and recommended.

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