American Born Chinese

December 26, 2016
American Born Chinese Book Cover American Born Chinese
Graphic Novel
First Second
September 6th, 2006

All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...

Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god...

Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life. Danny's a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...

These three apparently unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, in a modern fable that is hilarious, poignant and action-packed. American Born Chinese is an amazing rise, all the way up to the astonishing climax--and confirms what a growing number of readers already know: Gene Yang is a major talent. 

(via Goodreads)

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. american-born-chinese-jinIt’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. american-born-chinese-chin-keeThis 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. american-born-chinese-monkey-king-2I 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.

2 stars

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?


  • Laila@BigReadingLife December 27, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    I’ve not read this one yet but maybe this is a good nudge for me to try it, since I’m still relatively new to graphic novels and comics, and also still want to expand my reading of diverse authors. It’s obvious that you’ve taken time to engage with this book and think about it and that’s all anyone can ask for, really.

    • Jackie B December 30, 2016 at 12:11 am

      Thanks, Laila– it’s nice to have the acknowledged. I really struggled with the notion that I didn’t enjoy a hugely award-winning graphic novel, since I read quite a few of them, so I needed to figure that out.

      Another good #OwnVoices graphic novel to start with is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I really enjoyed it. Or, if you want something more humorous, I’d look into Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. It contains some diverse elements but they are fairly subtle.

  • Read Diverse Books December 28, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    I read this book in high school, when I was 15 or so. I don’t remember it much, but I remember enjoying it mildly? My goodreads rating says 3 stars, so I wasn’t very impressed either.
    I appreciated your very honest review, Jackie. If you didn’t connect with the book, you simply didn’t connect. It happens to all of us.

    • Jackie B December 30, 2016 at 9:06 am

      I wonder if you would enjoy it more now? Particularly as you’ve been focusing on diversity in literature, I feel like you’ve improved a ton in your analyzing of texts and their intention from a diversity perspective.
      Thanks for the compliment, Naz. That makes me feel a lot better– I was strangely worried after I read this that I am a terrible person. Oops. But, you’re right. It does happen to all of us.

  • Grab the Lapels December 31, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    While I didn’t love Anya’s Ghost, is a smoother transition into immigrant and first generation experience. Here’s my link:

    • Jackie B December 31, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      Thanks for sharing! I’ll definitely check out your review, as well as the graphic novel itself. I find that the genre is great for sharing experiences of The Other. I’m glad to see there are more options out there to explore this. 🙂

      • Grab the Lapels January 1, 2017 at 10:15 am

        I know that for a lot of people Amy Tan is the go-to author for immigrant and first generation experiences in fiction, but I haven’t read any of her work.

        • Jackie B January 1, 2017 at 10:13 pm

          I read Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat, her illustrated childrens book, many years ago– but I don’t think that counts. The Joy Luck Club has been on my TBR forever– perhaps I’ll finally get to some of her works this year? Thanks for the tip!

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