American Born Chinese

Today’s post (and I do mean today!) is about Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese! The only warnings I can think of are racist slurs and stereotypes toward East Asian people, particularly the Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Although it’s geared toward a younger audience, you’ll enjoy this comic if you like stories about coming-of-age, self-acceptance, and cultural differences. I’d also throw in that if you’re a fan of Chinese mythology (or any of its offspring media like Saiyuki or Dragon Ball), you’ll probably get a kick out of this.

Plot: Three stories of a Chinese-American schoolboy, the folk tale of the Monkey King, and a cousin who embodies an obnoxious and racist Chinese stereotype converge in a story of self-acceptance and Chinese-American identity.

Initial thoughts: The first thing that I noticed that I really loved was that the artist gives different skin tones to the various Asian-Americans in the play. Whereas many comics elect to depict people of Asian descent in a unifying pale or unifying color as if there is a single Asian skin tone, this comic acknowledges nuance and difference among Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese people.

Of course, this book acknowledges and critiques more stereotypes and experiences of Chinese-American life, such as the assumption that the only Asian nation is China or that Chinese-American people immigrated directly from China or, more painfully, being called slurs or feeling unaccepted in society because of the cultural difference. There is also a presentation of Chinese culture through one of the most famous folk tales in Chinese literature, the Monkey King from Journey to the West. Through the story we see how these elements of pain and ethnic pride merge into the experience of being Chinese-American. It’s also pretty kick ass that there’s such an emphasis on what it means to be Chinese-American rather than Chinese, Chinese-Canadian, or Chinese-British. I can definitely see how this book could be used to teach and promote greater ethnic and racial awareness in classrooms. If you weren’t aware of it already, May is national Asian-American and Pacific Islander month, so it’s an apt read!

Itty Bitty Research: I looked up some of the characters that appear in the narrative. From what I understand, these characters are called hanzi. I’ve studied Japanese, so some of the characters were immediately familiar, while others I had to look up.

All of the skills the Monkey King learns appears as hanzi. Of the heavenly disciplines, 電 means “lightning,” referencing the ability to channel lightning in punches and other fighting. 雷 means “thunder,” referencing the sound of his kicks. 雲 means “cloud,” which is the skill to summon a cloud that he can travel on. Of the bodily forms, 大 means “big,” referencing how he can make his form bigger. 小 means “small,” referencing how he can make his form smaller. 多 means “many,” referencing how he can make many clones from his hairs. 變 means “change,” which is the ability to shape shift. These are pretty obvious, given that the Monkey King says them while doing the action, which is actually a really great way for readers who are unfamiliar with hanzi to learn Chinese as they move through the story, which is a reversal of how Chinese readers are forced to learn English in English literature.

The hanzi and Chinese language actually makes for a lot of really neat relationships as well. Jin’s last name Wang is written in hanzi as 王, which means “king.” This makes more clear the relationship between Jin and the Monkey King, not to mention Danny later on. Wei-Chen’s name, possibly 陈衛, is interesting because the characters mean “to guard” and “to explain,” which is, again, revealed in the twist at the end of the narrative. (Chin-Kee’s name, if you didn’t catch it, is a pun on the slur chinky, which is historically a derogatory that refers to an Asian person.) Overall, little things like this were more significant to me as I researched, which were completely missed as I initially read through. Rather than the Monkey King carving out 齊天子聖到此一遊 into the pillar or 孫 on the side of Wei-Chen’s car at the end, the meanings behind the names were most exciting to me.

I couldn’t figure out most of the characters that appear in red blocks at the top of the pages, but I did notice how the characters were the same for each of the three stories, so I think they’re there to denote when the narrative switches among the stories. To me, who only sees radicals and a red block, this was lost, only recognizable as a traditional Chinese symbol. Yes, they are reminiscent of something distinctly Chinese, but they also mean something more. It was one of the things that made me realize that perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this graphic novel and that it would bear more significance to somebody who can read hanzi. It was nice to be reminded of that, especially since for a graphic novel being printed in English, one might forget their privilege of reading English.

Rating: 4/5

Works Cited: Yang, Gene. American Born Chinese. NY: First Second, 2006. Print.

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