“American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, presents a compelling narrative that intertwines three distinct yet connected stories, exploring themes of identity, racism, and assimilation.
The novel, notable for being the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award, weaves its tale through characters spanning from the 16th century to modern America.
The first storyline introduces us to the Monkey King, a deity from Flower-Fruit Mountain. After being denied entry to a heavenly party for being a shoeless monkey, the Monkey King, humiliated, trains in solitude, mastering invulnerability and shape-shifting.
He renames himself “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven,” and violently forces the celestial beings to recognize his new title. However, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator, confronts him, leading to the Monkey King’s imprisonment under a mountain for disrespecting his true nature.
Centuries later, the Monkey King is destined to become a disciple of the monk Wong Lai-Tsao. When Wong Lai-Tsao arrives, the Monkey King initially refuses to help but reconsiders after seeing the monk’s plight with demons.
Abandoning his pretenses and shoes, he reverts to his monkey form and agrees to accompany Wong Lai-Tsao.
Parallel to this ancient story is the life of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy grappling with his identity.
Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown to immigrant parents, Jin’s life changes when his family moves to the suburbs. At his new school, Jin faces racial stereotypes and loneliness, with his only respite being his friendship with Wei-Chen, a boy from Taiwan.
Jin’s struggle with his cultural identity intensifies as he falls for Amelia, a classmate, and undergoes a series of personal conflicts and transformations in his quest for acceptance and love.
Interspersed with these tales is a satirical sitcom narrative, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee.”
It features Danny, a typical American teenager, whose life is upended by the arrival of his cousin Chin-Kee, a caricature embodying offensive Asian stereotypes. Chin-Kee’s antics embarrass Danny at school, revealing the underlying racial tensions and prejudices in his environment.
The stories converge when Jin, transformed into his alter ego Danny, confronts Chin-Kee, who is revealed to be the Monkey King in disguise.
The Monkey King imparts wisdom to Jin about embracing one’s true self. Jin, realizing the importance of accepting his heritage, seeks reconciliation with Wei-Chen.
The novel concludes with Jin and Wei-Chen rekindling their friendship over pearl milk tea, symbolizing Jin’s journey towards self-acceptance and the complexities of the Asian-American experience.
This graphic novel masterfully combines myth, humor, and real-life struggles, offering a poignant commentary on identity and belonging.
Jin Wang, the protagonist of the book is a Chinese-American middle schooler whose journey is central to the novel.
Initially living in Chinatown, San Francisco, Jin is cocooned in his Asian culture until his family moves to the suburbs, exposing him to the stark realities of racism and the feeling of being an “other.”
This cultural and racial awakening is tumultuous, as Jin struggles with the clash of his American upbringing and Chinese heritage.
His internal conflict escalates when he transforms into his alter ego, Danny, an idealized White version of himself.
Through Danny’s experiences, Jin confronts the painful truth that changing his appearance cannot shield him from his internal struggles.
Jin’s journey towards self-acceptance, reconciling his dual identity, is a poignant reflection of the Asian-American experience.
Wei-Chen Sun/The Monkey King’s Son
Wei-Chen Sun, an immigrant from Taiwan, contrasts Jin with his comfort in his Asian identity.
His friendship with Jin is a pivotal aspect of the story, providing a lens through which Jin’s identity crisis is further explored. Wei-Chen’s struggle is less about cultural assimilation and more about the personal betrayals and challenges he faces, particularly his fallout with Jin.
The revelation of Wei-Chen being the Monkey King’s son adds a mythical dimension to his character, symbolizing the interplay of heritage and identity.
Despite his exposure to American culture, Wei-Chen maintains a stronger connection to his Asian roots, navigating the complexities of cultural integration in his unique way.
The Monkey King/Chin-Kee
The Monkey King, a mythical figure from Chinese folklore, and his alter-ego Chin-Kee represent contrasting attitudes towards cultural identity.
The Monkey King’s initial shame about his identity and subsequent journey to self-acceptance highlight the internal conflicts arising from cultural pressures.
Chin-Kee, a caricature of Chinese stereotypes, embodies a bold, albeit exaggerated, embrace of cultural identity.
This duality serves as a critique of how Asian identities are perceived and stereotyped, with the Monkey King’s eventual enlightenment underscoring the novel’s theme of embracing one’s true self.
Suzy Nakamura, of Japanese descent, is a key figure in Jin’s life, challenging the stereotype that all Asians are alike.
Her relationship with Wei-Chen and her interaction with Jin, especially after his misguided romantic advance, demonstrate the nuanced dynamics within their Asian-American community. Suzy’s character adds depth to the narrative, reflecting the varied experiences of Asian-Americans in navigating racial and cultural identities.
Amelia, a White classmate and the object of Jin’s affection, represents the complexities of interracial interactions in the novel. Her response to Jin’s advances and the subsequent intervention by Greg add layers to Jin’s struggle with identity and acceptance.
Amelia’s character, although not deeply explored, acts as a catalyst for Jin’s exploration of his self-worth and the challenges of cross-cultural relationships.
Greg, Jin’s White classmate, initially appears as a potential ally but later complicates Jin’s journey towards self-acceptance.
His request for Jin to stay away from Amelia, under the guise of protecting her social standing, reflects the subtle nuances of racial dynamics in their school. Greg’s character highlights the often-unspoken barriers and prejudices that exist within seemingly inclusive environments.
Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator in the novel, represents an omnipotent force, overseeing and influencing the lives of both deities and humans.
His interactions with the Monkey King, especially in enlightening him about his true nature, are pivotal in the narrative, underscoring themes of destiny, identity, and the power of acceptance.
Wong Lai-Tsao, a humble monk, is a foil to the Monkey King. Despite his flaws, his kindness, compassion, and acceptance of his destiny set him apart. His role in the Monkey King’s transformation from arrogance to enlightenment demonstrates the profound impact of humility and understanding in one’s journey of self-discovery.
1. Identity and Self-Acceptance
At the heart of the book lies the profound exploration of identity and the journey towards self-acceptance.
The character of Jin Wang personifies this struggle, representing the experiences of many Asian-Americans who grapple with the dual aspects of their identity. Jin’s transition from his life in Chinatown to the predominantly white suburbs highlights his internal conflict between his Chinese heritage and the desire to assimilate into American culture.
This theme is further exemplified through his transformation into Danny, a physical manifestation of his longing to escape ethnic stereotypes and racial prejudice. Similarly, the Monkey King’s story, paralleling Jin’s, delves into the denial and eventual acceptance of one’s true nature.
His initial rejection of his monkey form and subsequent punishment serve as a metaphor for the consequences of denying one’s roots and the liberation found in embracing one’s authentic self.
2. Racism and Stereotyping
Gene Luen Yang addresses the poignant issue of racism and the impact of stereotyping in a multi-layered manner.
Through Jin Wang’s experiences in school, where he faces microaggressions and overt racism from both peers and authority figures, the novel lays bare the everyday realities of racial prejudice faced by Asian-Americans.
These instances, ranging from misconceptions about cultural practices to outright offensive comments, paint a vivid picture of the challenges in navigating a society where one is constantly seen as the ‘other.’
The character of Chin-Kee in the sitcom narrative satirizes racial stereotypes, using exaggeration to critique how Asian-Americans are often portrayed in media and perceived in society.
This facet of the story provides a stark commentary on the dangers of perpetuating stereotypes and the dehumanizing effect it has on individuals.
3. Assimilation and Cultural Conflict
The book intricately weaves the theme of assimilation and the cultural conflict that arises from trying to blend into a society that is markedly different from one’s cultural heritage.
Jin’s desire to be like his American classmates, epitomized by changing his hairstyle and his attraction to Amelia, reflects the broader struggle of balancing the expectations and norms of two distinct cultures.
The pressure to conform and the consequent alienation from one’s roots are poignantly depicted through his character’s emotional turmoil.
Additionally, the novel portrays the generational gap in attitudes towards assimilation, as seen in the differing perspectives of Jin and his parents, further highlighting the complexity of navigating cultural identity within immigrant families.
This theme resonates with the universal experience of immigrants and their descendants, who often find themselves at the crossroads of preserving their cultural heritage while seeking acceptance in their new homeland.
“American Born Chinese” is a powerful and insightful graphic novel that adeptly tackles complex themes of identity, racism, and self-acceptance. Gene Luen Yang skillfully intertwines mythology with modern-day struggles, offering a unique perspective on the Asian-American experience.
The novel’s blend of humor, drama, and cultural critique makes it a poignant and engaging read, particularly for young adults navigating their own identities.