Allison's Book Bag

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Posted on: May 10, 2013

I felt prepared to hate the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Why? Because satire is a tricky business; not everyone gets it. And for those who don’t, what is meant to ridicule can instead promote. Case in point, the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family was intended to ridicule prejudice, but some viewers missed the point and saw Archie as a champion of American values rather than as a myopic buffoon. Having now read American Born Chinese, I better understand its success among fans and critics. Despite a fantastical and so less than satisfactory end, I found the graphic novel interesting and funny.

You need to understand that American Born Chinese interweaves three stories: an adaptation of Journey to the West, a Chinese classic featuring the legendary Monkey King; a sitcom parody that stars an extreme Asian stereotype; and a realistic story of a Chinese-American adolescent who balances his friendship with a recent Chinese immigrant with his infatuation with a Caucasian girl. Each chapter follows one of these stories, which are tied together in the conclusion.

My least favorite of these stories is the parody. Main character Chin-Knee has squinty eyes, black braids, talks weird, and knows Kung-Fu. He also knows all the answers in school, embarrasses his cousin in front of a date, and is annoying every time he steps onto the page. The author writes in his blog, “There is always the danger, of course, that by making a comic book about Cousin Chin-Kee I’m helping to perpetuate him, that readers will take his appearance … at face value. I think it’s a danger I can live with. In order for us to defeat our enemy, he must first be made visible.” I have mixed feelings. For the intended audience of older readers, Yang might have a point. Maybe the best way for society to move past prejudices and embrace diversity is to uncover and acknowledge our biases. But what if younger viewers are already moving past these prejudices? If the goal is to eliminate prejudice, why dredge up dying stereotypes?

My second favorite story is of the Monkey King. Would this be the case if I hadn’t read a modern version of Journey to the West? I don’t know. There is a risk that if one doesn’t understand the original story, the humor could fall flat. For me, I laughed a lot at this version of the stone monkey who wants to be a deity, but gets repeatedly told that he can’t. After all, um, he’s a MONKEY! The twist in the first chapter about him is priceless, when the monkey king retreats from his monkey subjects because of their monkey fur smell only to discover that he can’t escape his own smell. In subsequent chapters, the tale diverges from the version I read of Journey to the West, perhaps because Yang (as he says in his blog) “replaced the story’s Buddhist underpinnings with Christian ones, drawing from” his own faith. However, I don’t find his version particularly Christian, but rather feel it promotes a positive message about self-acceptance.

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My favorite story is the most realistic of the three, even if it’s yet another repackaging of boy-meets-girl. Yang draws on personal experience, and perhaps this helps elevate the story above the well-worn cliché. Jin moves to Mayflower Elementary School and immediately faces prejudice, even from well-meaning teachers who introduce him as being from China even though he was born in America . When a fellow student shares his parents’ generalization that all Chinese people eat dogs, the teacher awkwardly comes to Jin’s defense by saying, “Jin’s family probably stopped doing that as soon as they came to the United States.” Wow! As Jin’s story unfolds, other false beliefs are uncovered. We also see Jin struggle with his racial identity as he resists the popular assumption that he should be friends with the only Asian girl, and even finds himself wanting to beat up the next Asian newcomer. Eventually, the story moves into romantic territory (when Jin falls for a white girl) while still directly dealing with prejudice. On its own, perhaps, the story would feel too “in your face.” Or maybe not. In either case, we’ll never know because Yang eventually chooses to intertwine the three stories in a fantastical twist that involves the stone monkey.

Humor works or it doesn’t. For me, it worked most of the time in American Born Chinese. Yang’s version of Monkey King was far more enjoyable for me than the action-packed one from DC Comics. While I often felt shocked at the terrible way Jin was treated, I also enjoyed reading about his more pleasant moments. Despite my not caring for the conclusion, I did appreciate the message about learning to be oneself. Over all, I’m glad that I took a chance on American Born Chinese and will be interested to see future stories from Yang.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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4 Responses to "American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang"

I’ve been looking into this one.thanks for posting this

American Born Chinese has been on my reading list since the fall. I’m glad to have finally read it. 🙂

Thanks for recommending American Born Chinese. It emotionally moved me, while also making me laugh. Great combo in a book!

I’m glad you gave this book a try! I really loved it, although it’s been years since I’ve picked it up. Still, I do remember the story resonating quite strongely with me.

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