Yang, Gene Luen, and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.
The Monkey King longs to be a powerful god but ends up trapped under a mountain until he learns humility by accepting his true nature as a monkey. Danny is horrified by the visit of his nuisance, stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee who seems set on embarrassing him. Jin Wang is a Chinese American boy who hates being one of the few Asians at his school and longs to fit in with an American girlfriend. Eventually, through a conflict between Jin Wang and his immigrant friend Wei-Chen, we learn that the seemingly unrelated storylines of the Monkey King, Chin-Kee, Danny, Jin Wang and Wei-Chen are actually just different manifestations of the same lesson. Jin Wang and the others learn that a Chinese American identity is complicated, yet significant, and there is still a lot discover.
Heaven, probably “long ago” in China. Chinatown and Oakland, California (or possibly some other ethnically white-dominant American town), during a contemporary time period.
Point of View:
Identity, biculturalism, relationships, escapism, stereotyping, racism, shame, conformity, coming-of-age
Yang skillfully weaves a complex and rich storyline together in a seemingly simple graphic novel form. The illustrations do not lessen the powerful message and themes of the book. The use of humor and hyperbole make for a story that is engaging to youth, while exploring serious topics. This book can also serve as a strong example of the potential of graphic novels as quality literature. Among others, it received a Printz Award and was a National Book Award Finalist.
Quality of Illustrations:
The illustrations of characters and their surroundings are memorable and interesting. They also create an obvious satire that helps support the identity conflict of the main characters. The colors are vivid yet muted, with bright tones for action and more subdued hues for serious moments. Important ideas and words are represented with bolded text.
The author, like his protagonist Jin Wang, is the son of Chinese immigrants and grew up in California. By making it very obvious that Chin-Kee is a stereotyped character and confronting issues common to many Asian-American youth, Yang successfully portrays bicultural identity formation. Yang also creatively included traditional elements from Chinese culture through the fable of the Monkey King as well as American pop culture like Transformers and Ricky Martin music. There are even Chinese characters included around page borders and in the illustrations (though no real explanation of their meanings).
This book seems to be aimed at a middle school and high school audience. There is some juvenile humor (the monkey urinating on the god-figure’s hand or Chin-Kee peeing in a boy’s Coke) and some sexual references (“you can pet my lizard” and “bear Chin-Kee’s children”). Since the book does combine several story strands together, it might be difficult for concrete-thinkers to fully comprehend the final message without several re-reads.
This book was my first serious experience with a graphic novel that could be considered literature. I have probably only read one other, and it was a random, uninformed book selection that did not leave me wanting for more. Initially with American Born Chinese, I struggled to see how the stories were interrelated, even as I finished the book. It took more several more looks to see the layers and the complexity of the satire in Chin-Kee’s depiction. It even took me a bit to recognize the symbolism in the Monkey King’s evolution as a character. However, when I finally understood the parallels between Danny and Jin Wang and then Chin-Kee and Wei-Chen (as well as the ties between Jin Wang, Wei-Chen and the Monkey King), I realized the brilliance of Yang’s text. In creating such an intricate story, he also defined the complex nature of what it means to be Asian-American.