Review: “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

indexI have one of the most bizarre stories of how I accidentally met Gene Luen Yang. I had never heard of him nor was I terribly familiar with graphic novels in general. Sure, Introduction to Graphic Novels was THE May term class to be in (if you were in the English department) but I’m pretty sure I was busy taking a required course. So as it happened I was attending the Public Library Association annual conference where, in addition to professional development, there was a ton of free stuff. I for one am trained in the fine art of taking all the free stuff so took full advantage of this.

So much so that there was a random line of people in front of me that I just assumed it was for free stuff so I joined in. What a terrible way to meet the Printz Award finalist Yang. I quietly thanked the woman who asked me “‘Boxers’ or ‘Saints’” hoping that my answer of “Boxers?” was the correct one and that yes I wanted it personalized. And when I go to the front of the line, a kind young man drew a picture in my book and signed it, thanking me for having been there.

And that was how I accidentally met Gene Luen Yang.

The man himself signing books; hopefully for more literate folk than I.

The man himself signing books; hopefully for more literate folk than I.

My copy of "Boxers" that is severely autographed.  I'm not confident that something can be "severely autographed" but if so, I think this counts.

My copy of “Boxers” that is severely autographed. I’m not confident that something can be “severely autographed” but if so, I think this counts.

Sadly I have not cracked open “Boxers” because I’m perilously distracted by all the other shiny that comes across my imaginary desk (read:: return bin) and have neglected all the beautiful books that I actually own. I did however find myself at a library (weird) where I finally checked out “American Born Chinese.”

“American Born Chinese” is essentially three stories interwoven. The first story is of the Monkey King. A monkey who rules his land and considers himself a king and a deity above all, equal to the great gods of lore. When he goes to join those deities he is mocked for being a monkey and considered wholly unequal. Angered by this rebuke, he leaves them and begins training himself to be even more powerful. He misjudges in what form he is most valuable, as a loyal follower or as a strong leader, and must learn his lesson.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student trying desperately to fit in at his school but finds himself being the victim of race-related bullying. A Taiwanese student joins the school, Wei-Chin, and works hard to be Jin’s friend though the friendship appears to be one sided. Like many high school students, Jin is mesmerized by a girl or at least the idea of being able to say that he is in a relationship so he asks the pretty Amelia to the movies. They have a little trouble hitting it off but the important takeaway is that Jin asks Wei-Chin to lie on his behalf thus damaging their relationship.

The third story is of Danny, an all-American white boy trying to fit in and much like Jin, find a girl. This is made all the more difficult by his cousin, Chin-Kee’s, yearly visit. A terrifying caricature of negative Asian stereotypes, Chin-Kee wastes no time in raining down prompt and accurate answers in Danny’s class, a robust and offensive sexual appetite, and is indeed the very picture of an (offensive) Asian caricature: yellow skin, buck teeth, and squinted eyes.

I enjoyed Yang’s storytelling, particularly in that each of the stories presented in this work were incredibly different from one another. The story of the Monkey King I took to be a parable, an Aesop-like quality came with the lovely pictures. And though I could not relate to the race relations involved in Jin Wang’s story, I can certainly understand the difficulty of not fitting in. At the same time, the reader could see the quiet, everyday struggles that Jin faces in representing a heritage in an unfamiliar location. Danny and Chin-Kee’s story made me cringe. The totally overblown negative stereotypes highlighted by Chin-Kee (“chinky”) absolutely made me sick. But the way I read that was that was the point.

Prior to reading the ending of the story, my analysis of the whole book was that the story of the Monkey King was more focused in ancient folklore, representative of the rich cautionary tales that have come from a part of the world whose history cannot be fully understood. I took Jin Wang and Wei-Chin’s story as one of the everyday struggles that a minority faces: they might not be overt or dangerous by they can be damaging. And I just wanted to yell at Chin-Kee to stop being such a stereotype. Perhaps representative of the outsiders view?

It was a fascinating read overall and the ending simply increased the respect I have for Yang and his ability to create not only engaging pictures but also an important story.

Also, he Tweeted me back so we're essentially BFFs.

Also, he Tweeted me back so we’re essentially BFFs.