American Born Chinese is the story of a first-generation American boy, Jin, growing up struggling with the stigma that comes from his Chinese ancestry. It’s also the story of the Chinese legend surrounding the Monkey King. It is also a sitcom featuring stereotypical American-white-jock-superstar Danny who is plagued with a yearly visit from his cousin Chin-Kee, the ultimate stereotypical Chinaman. It is also the first graphic novel to ever be nominated for the National Book Award. This deceptively simple trio of stories deals with reconciling culture, personal identity, and heritage in a way that is accessible to young readers.
Each of these three stories describes a character who is unable to help themselves, and in many ways, are completely unaware they even need assistance. Jin struggles with the bullying and ostracization that came from being a first generation American. And so he distances himself from the FOB (“Fresh off Boat”) Taiwanese boy who arrives at school, experiencing the same things. Next, Danny’s reputation is being ruined by Chin-Kee, because he’s so different yet everyone absolutely loves him. It drives Danny into transferring schools repeatedly. And finally, the Monkey King is blinded by his need to be accepted as an immortal god, driving him to master all the heavenly disciplines and all of kung-fu. Despite all this, still no one accepts him. All three of these protagonists want to fit in with the majority, but can’t because the majority rejects who they are underneath all their attempts at assimilation.
It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing for forfeit your soul.
The art is beautiful. I found Gene Luen Yang because he illustrated a nursery rhyme in Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes. Just like in that book, the art in American Born Chinese is clean, colorful yet muted, and flat. This makes for an attractive and relatable background for these stories. It actually reminds me a bit of the early 2000’s Cartoon Network cartoons such as The Powerpuff Girls. It also has a very traditional feel to the art– traditionally Chinese. But, the physical book itself is really the crowning achievement of the book-as-art Yang has created. A hardback book with thick, glossy pages, there is something substantive to the graphic novel. Each page is in full color with a thick white border. There is even a ribbon bookmark to help you find the pages. It’s gorgeous.
Yet, despite all that, I just didn’t really enjoy it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about this, and I believe it comes down to two major things. First, I just can’t relate. This sounds terrible, but as a privileged white, this isn’t something I struggled with. I can certainly empathize, but I cannot relate with any of these characters. Even Danny, our stereotypical white American high school student. My inability to place myself in the story distanced me quite a bit from what I was reading. However, now that I recognize this gap in understanding, I can learn from it. I need to expose myself to more stories about Asian-Americans and their trials and tribulations. Once I have a better background, I certainly will better understand the book.
I do not make mistakes, little monkey. A monkey I intended you to be. A monkey you are.
The second reason was the book’s format. I really struggled with it. I didn’t understand how all the pieces worked together until the very end. While this is what makes this graphic novel brilliant, it also makes it a frustrating reading experience the first time through. I am certain if I was to go back and re-read this book now, I’d see totally different things and have a totally different experience. Because, as an avid reader, it’s embarrassing to get 80% of the way through a book and still not understand why it was nominated for the National Book Award. In retrospect, I completely get it. But I’m still frustrated. It means that I need some space, but when I return to American Born Chinese I will have a very powerful experience, even if I see the ending coming.
Knowing I can learn from this particular reading experience and return to the book gives me hope. I plan on returning to this in another year or so– perhaps then I will better understand and better appreciate what so many have already seen in its pages. I recognize how important this book is to the world– I just wasn’t ready for it.
What do you think?
- Have you read American Born Chinese? What do you think?
- Have you ever read a book you knew you should like, but you didn’t? How did you handle it?
- Has there been a time you re-read a book and it was a completely different experience the second time? What do you think created that change?