American Born Chinese
Cover art of the first edition
|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 separate tales.
The second tale is the story of a first-generation child of immigrants named Jin Wang, who has moved from San Francisco's Chinatown to a mostly white suburb. Jin Wang struggles to fit in within his new school, and within white American culture. His story links the other two narratives, and fits the form of an ethnic coming-of-age. At school, he struggles to fit in, becomes friends with Wei-Chen Sun, a Taiwanese boy, and later dates Amelia Harris, an all-American girl, but the relationship doesn't last because of his classmate Greg's disapproval of the relationship.
The third tale tells the story of a white American boy named Danny, whose Chinese cousin Chin-Kee (as in "Chinky") comes and visits every year. Chin-Kee displays many American racial stereotypes of the Chinese in terms of accent, dress, hairstyle, physical appearance, eating habits, academic performance, and hobbies. Danny is troubled by Chin-Kee's visits.
While the three tales are seemingly unrelated at first, it is later revealed in the book that Danny is actually Jin Wang, who "transformed" into a White boy after being prevented from pursuing the girl of his dreams for being Chinese. Eventually, Danny fights Chin-Kee, only to find out that Chin-Kee is really the Monkey King, who came to remind him of his true identity. Ultimately, Jin Wang gives up his "Danny" persona and embraces his Chinese identity.
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 Cantonese 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. He is 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" for "R's" and vice versa 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, no matter if the subject is U.S. Government, History, Anatomy, Algebra, or Spanish.
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."
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.
- 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 30 May 2017.[permanent dead link]
- First Second - Creators - Gene Yang - Blog, essay on the book by author Gene Yang