American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: Square Fish
Genre: Graphic Novel, Cultural, Chinese
Literary Awards: Michael L. Printz Award (2007), James Cook Book Award Nominee (2007), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Graphic Album – New (2007), National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2006)
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When faced with a reading slump, I like to check out graphic novels. Who doesn’t?
American Born Chinese is a story of Chinese-American boy who has just transferred to a new school, and is trying to fit into her all-american ways. Jin tries to settle in quietly and almost succeeds (minus the constant bullying, because they’re just trying to be friends right?), until a new Taiwanese student joins his class. Wei Chen is the FOB down the block and Jin doesn’t want to be associated with him, until Chen shows him his new robot transformer toy, and the rest is history.
American Born Chinese doesn’t end here though, in fact Jin’s story is just a third of the book.
We have Danny, a popular Caucasian playing for his school’s basketball team, whose troubles surface every year when his Chinese cousin comes for a visit. Chin Kee is loud and embarrassing, fitting into all the negative attributes of a Chinese (slant eyes, buck-toothed, perpetual snigger on the face, low EQ, poor command of English, etc). Whenever he arrives, Danny’s reputation takes a hit and forces him to transfer to another school. This has been his third transfer.
And of course, who can forget the Monkey King? He commands a fleet of monkeys and has mastered every pre-requisite kung fu move there is to immortality, yet he is not considered one of them. In fact, he gets thrown out of the deities’ banquets and faces subsequent imprisonment under a rock mountain for 500 years due to his behavior at said banquet.
In all honesty, I was at first worried about how and why did the story contain three narratives, none of which seemingly have anything in common. My doubts were soon placated. The way Yang managed to weave all three stories so seamlessly astonished me, not just because I wasn’t expecting those plot twists (damn, they’re good!), but mainly because the subtlety and intricateness of the overall storyline was amazing.
In today’s modern world, globalisation is alive and animate, and immigration is commonplace. The onus of adapting is often placed on the immigrant, from learning the country’s official language, to adjusting their physical appearances (“no tardy outfits in our sophisticated first world, mind you!”). Sometimes however, no matter how much one tries, stereotypes cannot be reconciled. It is then imperative to love and accept yourself for who you are, even if the world might not. All three characters here could not accept themselves for who they were, and tried to pander to the crowd’s tastes to gain their idea of self. They wear shoes on feet that are meant to be bare, and perm their hair to mimic the trends. Yet, these actions do not make them inclusive; ironically, it only drives them further away from the circle.
The importance for self-acceptance doesn’t necessarily stop here, afterall being/feeling left out applies to everyone (at some point in life), regardless of racial boundaries. Still, the take home message remains the same. It is only when we accept the Chin Kee in us, the most embarrassing and party-pooper side of us, do we learn to love our Jin for who he is. Afterall, no matter how much we want Danny to be the image we portray ourselves to the outside world, there are just certain things that Jin is capable of that Danny isn’t.
Overall, American Born Chinese showcased Yang’s eloquence in storytelling, in both delivering a difficult subject matter to its intended audience, as well as keeping them entertained with twists unforeseeable. Amazing job well done.
Rating: 5/5 stars
How was the book for you? Let me know in the comments below.