American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, tells three stories. The first is a condensed version of the classic Journey to the West, the story of how Monkey brought the sacred texts of Buddhism to China. The second is the story of young Jin Wang who must leave the safety of San Francisco’s Chinatown for life in the suburbs where he is the only Chinese American student in his class and where he falls in love with a white girl. The third story is that of Chin-Kee the personification of all negative Chinese stereotypes who comes to visit his American cousin and to ruin his life once a year.
American Born Chinese is a story about identity and about trying to fit in. An old shop keeper in Chinatown tells Jin Wang “It is easy to become anything you wish so long as you’re willing to forfeit your own soul.” The price for fitting in can be very high. Jin Wang wants to fit in with the white students at his new school so he turns on the only other Chinese student there, one whose accent and appearance is much more Chinese than his. Monkey is rejected by the heavenly dinner party because he has no shoes, so he forces all of the other monkeys in his kingdom to start wearing them. Chin-Kee is unashamed by who he is, but who he is brings shame on his cousin who rejects his Chinese identity so much that he has actually become white.
All three stories tie up together in a satisfying conclusion that makes its point without preaching. It may be too subtle for some younger readers, and I am always hesitant about presenting negative stereotypes as a means of critiquing them, but I think American Born Chinese would make an interesting addition to a high school or undergraduate class. If you’ve not yet explored the world of graphic novels, it’s a good place to start. They have, of late, begun to come of age. I suspect to find them on a growing number of syllabi in the coming decades. I expect to find American Born Chinese on a growing number of reading lists.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. Since then, I have intended to read more graphic novels, but have not read many. If their prices ever come down….