American Born Chinese
|Author||Gene Luen Yang|
|Illustrator||Gene Luen Yang|
|Publisher||First Second Books|
|Media type||Print (paperback & hardback collector's edition)|
|Pages||240 pp (paperback edition)|
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. Released in 2006 by First Second Books, it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Awards in the category of Young People's Literature. It won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award, the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album: New, the Publishers Weekly Comics Week Best Comic of the Year, the San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, the 2006/2007 Best Book Award from The Chinese American Librarians Association, and Amazon.com Best Graphic Novel/Comic of the Year. It also made the Booklist Top Ten Graphic Novel for Youth, the NPR Holiday Pick, and Time Top Ten Comic of the Year. It was colored by cartoonist Lark Pien, who received the 2007 Harvey Award for Best Colorist for her work on the book.
The story of American Born Chinese consists of three seemingly separate tales, which are tied together at the end of the book.
The first story line is Yang's contemporary rendition of the Chinese story of a Kung Fu practicing Monkey King of Flower-Fruit Mountain, The Monkey King, a character from the classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. Yang replaces the Buddha from the original story with a Christian influenced deity Tze-Yo-Tzuh. Throughout the story, The Monkey King is unhappy with himself as a monkey and continually tries to become another version of himself. Tze-Yo-Tzuh tries to help The Monkey King accept himself. When The Monkey King refuses Tze-Yo-Tzuh imprisons him under a mountain of rocks. A monk named Jiang Tao is sent by Tze-Yo-Tzuh on a mission to carry three packages to the west and is to pick up his disciple, The Monkey King, on his journey. He finds The Monkey King imprisoned under the mountain of rocks and frees him from the mountain by convincing The Monkey King to return to his true form.
The second story line follows a child of Chinese immigrants named Jin Wang. His story links the other two narratives, and fits the form of an ethnic coming-of-age. His family moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to a suburb where he goes to school with only two other Asian students. Jin struggles with his Chinese identity and begins to reject it when he meets a new Asian student, Wei-Chen. Wei-Chen is a Taiwanese immigrant who just came to the United States, and he and Jin become best friends. Jin begins dating Amelia Harris, a Caucasian girl in his class, but her friend Gregg asks Jin not to ask her out any more because he felt she needed to protect her image. Jin perceives this as a personal attack on him because of his race and becomes angry. Angry and confused, he kisses Wei-Chen's girlfriend and they have a falling-out. That evening, Jin recalls the fight he had with Wei-Chen and convinces himself that Wei-Chen deserved it. That night, Jin has a dream about a Chinese woman he had met when he was younger. She had told him that he could be anything he wanted if he was willing to give up his soul. He awakens the next morning and looks in the mirror to see himself as a Caucasian boy and he changes his name to Daniel.
The third story line follows Danny, an "all-American boy" and his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee (as in "Chinky"), who comes to visit every year. Danny is embarrassed by Chin-Kee, who is depicted as racist stereotype, in traditional queue with buck-teeth, speaking in pidgin English. At the end of this narrative, we learn that Chin-Kee is really The Monkey King. Danny is actually Jin Wang, who "transformed" into a White boy after being prevented from pursuing the girl of his dreams because he was Chinese. The Monkey King tells Danny that his son Wei-Chen was sent to live among the mortals without sin for forty years but that he had changed and no longer wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. That is when The Monkey King decided to visit Danny. Danny realized that the reason Wei-Chen fell into sin was his fault and as he realizes this, he turns back into Jin Wang. Ultimately, Danny changes back to Jin Wang and embraces his Chinese identity, while also reconciling with Wei-Chen–the Monkey King's son.
The Monkey King: A monkey who has lived for thousands of years and mastered all the heavenly disciplines. He yearns to join the ranks of gods, and after being rejected, goes on a rampage. He managed to defeat many gods and goddesses, but was buried under a mountain by Tze-Yo-Tzuh for five hundred years. He was later released by Wong Lai-Tsao and accompanies him on his journey.
Wong Lai-Tsao: Based upon Tang Sanzang from Journey to the West. Wong Lai-Tsao is a monk sent on a journey for Tze-Yo-Tzuh. He is promised the Monkey King as a disciple.
Jin Wang: Jin Wang is a Chinese American boy who wants to fit in with the white students at his new school in a suburb. He doesn't like talking too much at school, especially in front of Amelia, the girl he has a crush on. He is finally encouraged by his friend Wei-Chen, to ask her out. But this relationship doesn't remain long. Greg, Amelia's friend, asks Jin to break up with her because he doesn't think Jin is right for Amelia.
Amelia Harris: Amelia Harris is a white American girl who is the classmate of Jin and Wei-Chen. Jin has a crush on her.
Wei-Chen Sun: Wei-Chen Sun is a Taiwanese immigrant who slowly becomes Jin's best friend. His girlfriend is Suzy Nakamura. It is revealed in the end of the story that he is actually the Monkey King's eldest son, and originally wanted to become an emissary, but then decided that he didn't like humans because they are "petty, soulless creatures" and wanted to spend the rest of his days using the mortal world for his pleasure.
Suzy Nakamura: Suzy Nakamura is a young Japanese American girl in Jin and Wei-Chen's class. She starts dating Wei-Chen in middle school.
Greg: Greg is a white American boy and a friend of Amelia Harris. While he initially appears nice, it is later revealed he is racist, disapproving of Jin's relationship with Amelia.
Danny: Danny is a white "average" American boy. Danny is always really irritated and embarrassed by his Asian cousin Chin-Kee. Since Chin-Kee's annual visits began when Danny was in eighth grade, Danny has had to change schools every year since then due to the appearance and mannerisms of Chin-Kee screwing up everything about him and makes him a terribly unpopular weirdo. Danny actually turns out to be Jin Wang, under a new identity.
Chin-Kee: Chin-Kee is a startling caricature of negative Chinese stereotypes. He is Danny's larger-than-life Chinese cousin who, to Danny's embarrassment, comes to visit every year. Chin-Kee wears antiquated Chinese clothing, the traditional queue hairstyle, and literally has yellow skin, buck teeth, and eyes squinting so tightly that the pupils cannot be seen. He loudly speaks extraordinary "Chinglish" at all times, likes to play tricks on people, and possesses a frightening sexual appetite. Chin-Kee is really the Monkey King in disguise. Chin-Kee's name sounds like the ethnic insult "chinky" when said aloud.
Racial struggles and stereotypes
According to Min Hyoung Song, American Born Chinese possesses strong themes of racial stereotypes, particularly American stereotypes of the Chinese and other East Asian ethnicities. The primary example of these stereotypes is Chin-Kee, who is the embodiment of the term "coolie," a nineteenth-century racial slur for unskilled Chinese workers. According to Chaney, he is "an incarnation of the 'Yellow Peril' era of racism" which Song defines as "slant-eyes, short stature, sallow skin, predictably Chinese clothing, claw-like fingertips, and long menacing queue". In addition, Chin-Kee continually switches his "L's" and "R's" during speech. The American roots of Chin-Kee's stereotypes are emphasized by the style of the illustrations, which are drawn to simulate an American television show. Song mentions that "[t]o emphasize further that this is an image originally formalized in newspapers and popular entertainment and later largely disseminated through the growth of popular mass media, the words 'clap clap clap' line the entire bottom of the panel...This, and the words 'ha ha ha,' are likewise repeated in other panels, replicating the canned laughter and applause of television sit-coms." Just as the media that have enforced these stereotypes have changed, so have some of the stereotypes themselves. Chin-Kee does not only represent a version of nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, but also of the more contemporary stereotype that all Asians make exceptional students. During class with Danny, Chin-Kee knows the answer to every question in every school subject, including algebra, Spanish, anatomy, chemistry, and U.S. government.
Chin-Kee's academic ability brings to light what Cheryl Gnomes describes as a misguided distinction between "good" stereotypes and "bad" stereotypes. Gnomes mentions that a seemingly "good stereotype" such as Chin-Kee's stellar academic performance is still a negative stereotype overall, because if an Asian student is struggling with a particular academic subject and is believed (and/or expected) to be naturally gifted in the subject, the stereotyped student will feel pressured to perform and fear asking for help.
Chaney argues that the Monkey King serves as a metaphor for minority races and/or ethnicities, particularly those who shun their racial or ethnic backgrounds in order to assimilate into the majority culture. The Monkey King is not allowed into the celestial dinner party because he is a monkey, and therefore inherently inferior in the eyes of the other deities. When he is rejected, he is determined to prove to the world that he is more than just a Monkey, and masters the "four disciplines of invulnerability" in order to become "The Great Sage, Heaven's Equal."
Transformation and understanding identity
The primary characters of American Born Chinese undergo phases of identity crises that are coupled with some sort of mental or physical transformation(s). Chaney states that the novel "celebrates transformations of identity by way of creaturely alterity. Put another way, Yang's characters become not simply other than what they are, but the other that they are." Transforming toys are introduced very early in the narrative to foreground this theme, and the narrative structure itself transforms in the final act, making this a theme not only of the characters but a key element of the way the story is told.
The Monkey King desires to be recognized as a powerful deity, and more than simply a monkey. Through meditation and practicing Kung-Fu, he is transformed into The Great Sage. Chaney argues that for readers, the use of an animal character like the Monkey King within graphic novels and literature in general allows an understanding of human identity, often more than any other type of character. He argues that the use of an animal character with human characteristics, particularly pathos, simultaneously invokes within the reader the Latin warnings of memento mori and memento bestie ("remember your mortality" and "remember you are animal"). According to Chaney, when characteristics generally considered to be human are given to the Monkey King, readers identify with their human identity more than with the human characters of the novel, such as Jin Wang.
Later in the novel, the Monkey King transforms, or disguises himself into Chin-Kee, Danny's cousin, in order to reveal Danny his true identity as Jin Wang. Fu argues that the Monkey King's transformation into Chin-Kee is a representation of "[t]he legendary trickster figure [that] has been repeatedly re-imagined by Chinese American writers as a source of cultural strength, a symbol of subversion and resistance, and a metaphor for cross-cultural and interracial negotiation." The Monkey King in Yang's version of the classic tale does not use his trickery so much for rebellion as for helping Jin Wang explore and accept himself and identify with his culture.
Jin Wang "struggles to survive exclusion and racist bullying in his search for an identity in a predominantly white suburban school." To deal with his crisis of identity he transforms himself into "Danny," a white boy who is the protagonist of the third narrative of the novel. Ultimately, his crisis is only deepened when he has to deal the grotesque representation of Chinese stereotypes that his cousin, Chin-Kee displays. Chin-Kee turns out to be the Monkey King. Jin Wang (disguised/transformed into Danny) has been taught to hate about his own culture via racist American stereotypes. When his true identity is revealed, the Monkey King tells Jin Wang that he used the disguise to serve as Jin Wang's conscience, not as a punishment. Ultimately, Jin Wang begins to accept his own identity and dismisses his alter-ego, Danny.
Wei-Chen Sun is actually the Monkey King's eldest son, sent to earth in human form as an emissary for Tze-Yo-Tzuh. His test of virtue is to spend forty years in the mortal world while remaining free of human vice. When he initially arrives to Jin Wang's school he is "presented as a nerdy but fearless recent immigrant from Taiwan." After Jin kisses Suzy Nakamura and Jin and Wei-Chen have a falling out, Wei-Chen transforms into an "angry and despondent Asian American hipster" and gives up his mission for Tze-Yo-Tzuh. Despite Wei-Chen's multiple transformations, hints of his identity as a monkey are subtly and blatantly represented throughout the story. During the scene with Amelia in the biology lab, Wei-Chen has an affinity to the teacher's lipstick-wearing monkey, who will not leave him alone. Wei-Chen can easily recognize that the monkey is actually a male, just as the monkey can actually recognize that Wei-Chen is a monkey himself. When Jin tells Wei-Chen that he has spoken to Wei-Chen's father (the Monkey King), a panel depicting Wei-Chen's true identity as a monkey juxtaposes his hipster human form in the next panel. No matter what transformation Wei-Chen takes, he cannot dismiss his true identity as a monkey.
Use in schools
Gnomes states that American Born Chinese is a great resource to help academically struggling students (particularly struggling readers) and students with social-cognitive disabilities to find motivation to learn, to relate a piece of text to their lives, and to use the graphics to help them understand/relate to the words.
In 2021, Disney+ ordered a television adaptation of the graphic novel. The show will be produced by Disney's 20th Television with Kelvin Yu and Charles Yu as writers and executive producers, Marvin Mar and Jake Kasdan as executive producers, and Destin Daniel Cretton as director and executive producer.
- Fu, Binbin (Fall 2007). "American Born Chinese". Melus. 32 (3): 274. doi:10.1093/melus/32.3.274. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
- American Library Association (2010). "Michael L. Printz Winners and Honor Books". Archived from the original on 8 February 2011. Retrieved 2011-02-03.
- Song, Min Hyoung (2010). ""How good it is to be a monkey": comics, racial formation, and American Born Chinese". Mosaic (Winnipeg). 43 (1).
- Chaney, Michael A. (Summer 2011). "Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel". College Literature. 38 (3). Retrieved 6 April 2012.
- Gnomes, Cheryl (November 2010). "Navigating Through Social Norms, Negotiating Place: How American Born Chinese Motivates Struggling Learners". English Journal. 100 (2): 68–76. ProQuest 766935635.
- Darowski, Joseph; Mack, Todd. "The Protagonist Podcast #125: Jin Wang in American Born Chinese". The Protagonist Podcast. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
- Andreeva, Nellie (October 4, 2021). "Disney+ Greenlights 'American Born Chinese' Series From Melvin Mar, Kelvin Yu & Jake Kasdan; 'Shang-Chi's Destin Daniel Cretton To Direct". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 4, 2021.
- Chen, Shih-wen Sue (2018-08-28). "Sight, Blindness and Identity in Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints". In Stratman, Jacob (ed.). Teens and the New Religious Landscape: Essays on Contemporary Young Adult Fiction. McFarland & Company. pp. 218-. ISBN 9781476630991.
- First Second - Creators - Gene Yang - Blog, essay on the book by author Gene Yang