American Born Chinese is a graphic novel by Gene Leun Yang that tells three stories, all centered around, well being a Chinese-American mostly, but there’s still plently about the immigrant expernce overall, being an outcast, and dealing with the conflict that comes with defining one’s self, esspically when one is of various, often conflicting cultures. But before we delve into that, a word on the art. Yang drew the book himself, and it looks really nice, most of the things I liked about the art in Boxers and Saints was there, but over all there seemed to be some sort of difference. I can’t place it, and heck it might have just been my well worn library copy, but there’s something I just like a tiny bit less than Boxers and Saints. I do want to mention that I like Yang’s use of magical realism in his comics he’s used so far. He typically uses it visually, like everybody becoming Chinese gods in Boxers, but sometimes it manifests as characters or plot points, such as the talking racoon in Saints; and I really like his use of it in comics as I feel he’s really utilizing the medium’s potential to be both visual and literary. Now that art is out of the way, its on to why we’re all here, story.
American Born Chinese’s three stories are not to orginal, indeed they’re practically cliches, but a good writer can make cliches interesting, and Yang does just that. The frist story is about the mythical Monkey King, the famed character from the Journey to the West, and how he loses his identity while trying to be accpected by the other Chinese deities. I really like want Yang did with this story, actually blending Christian influences from his own Catholic faith into one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and really this could have been a whole book on its own, and probably would have benefited from the extended length. The second story is about Jin Wang, born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who meet at San Francisco State University, and his life after his family moves from San Francisco to some unnamed town. At his new school he finds himself an outcast until a new kid from Taiwan comes to school and they strike up a friendship. It’s a nice little coming of age story, but is made far better by, or at least stands out due to, the book’s twist ending that brings all three stories together. The final story is basically a sitcom in comic form, compleate with establishing shots, laugh track, and mind numbing humor. It tells the story the story of Danny, the typical “all American boy”, as he endures his the vist of his cousin, Chin-Kee, the embodyment of every offesive Asian sterotype American culture has had about Asians, or pretty much all of them. Eyelids so squinty you can’t see the eyes? Yep. Big buck teeth? Yes. Down right yellow skin? Of course. Terrible english? What do you half the “jokes” are on this “sitcom”? This story’s style was the one I liked the most. It really played to a graphic novel’s visual strengths to be able to do a sitcom without actually having to be a sitcom, and it doubled as a clever way to have the embodyment of every negative Asian American sterotype to exist, only to then to use it in, well, an interesting way, let’s say that. In conclusion, American Born Chinese is a good book that does really interesting things while dealing with what its like to be an outcast and how far do you go in order to be accpected. However its not as good as Boxers and Saints, though that is a bit of an unfair comparison, its still well worth your time and enjoyable, but I guess I just prefer the epic scale and moral complexity of Boxers and Saints.
I feel the most orginal thing to talk about with American Born Chinese is how narrative aimed towards younger audiences treats theme and resolution of said narratives. I could talk about the themes of immigration and loss of identity, but honestly that’s every other conversation about this book and I want to contribute something. With that said American Born Chinese ends with all three stories converging, as we find out Danny was Jin, and Chin-Kee was the Monkey King after he had accpected himself, and the whole “sitcom” was to teach Jin to accpect who he is as well as his heritage. It was a nice and approate ending, and does well enough, but it feels, rather…. quick I think. And I don’t think this is something that’s not uncommon in media aimed for children and young adults. I feel all too often that the theme and “central lesson” of the story is just laid out in a nice little essay towards the end to make sure the “little ones feeble minds get the point”. That’s actually how Looking for Alaska by John Green ends, with a straight up essay about suffering and death and stuff, which granted makes far more sense in context, but still. Its gotten to the point where it kind of feels insulting, like the creator isn’t trusting enough of their own audience to get the point. I do get that kids aren’t as understanding, teens don’t get anything they’re hit over the head with it, and I’m getting older and growing up; but is it too much to ask that creators try? I mean Yang clearly thinks young people can accpect moral complexity, Boxers is evidence of that, and Dr. Suess’s The Lorax is even nuanced and morally ambiguous. So this kind of thing is possible, and can even be successful. But that’s just me, I would love to hear what any of you have manged to keep reading this all the way through think, so feel free to comment. Until next time, farewell!