Tuesday, April 24, 2007

American Born Chinese: Stereotypes and asskickery

I don't feel like writing anything extensive tonight, so here's a quick review of a book most people seem to have read already:

American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang

I found this book to be a fascinating look at an underrepresented segment of American society, the Asian-American populace. Typically, they're not as visible or outspoken as some minorities, so they often seem to go ignored. Well, Yang gives us a look at what it's like growing up in the United States as part of that minority. It's downright breathtaking to see him vent his rage at the comments and jokes people made when he was growing up, whether it's obvious stuff like kids pushing their eyes into a squint when he walks by or more subtle aspects, like assuming all Asians come from China or that they regularly eat dogs and cats.

The book is divided into three storylines, two of which deal directly with the Asian-American experience and one that approaches it more obliquely, through the famous Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King. Of the three, I found the story of Jin Wang (who seems to be based on Yang's childhood) the most gripping. It's a good coming-of-age tale, as we see him be conflicted over embracing or denying his heritage. Yang perfectly captures the experience of having a crush on a pretty girl and being too self-conscious to talk to her. I love his depiction of the "jolt of confidence" that Jin gets:

The funniest and probably most striking story is the one dealing with Chin-Kee, a Chinese stereotype of the most obvious and hurtful sort who, on his yearly visits to "Amellica", never fails to ruin his cousin Danny's life. He's every hurtful thing somebody says to or about an Asian person, turned up to eleven (and given a laugh track!). It's like Yang is exorcising his demons, right here in front of all his readers:

In the third storyline, we get an interpretation of the legend of the Monkey King, a famous figure in Chinese folklore. It's great fun, as he considers himself to be a god, but is not allowed entrance to a feast in heaven. Here's what results:

So he meditates and perfects all possible kung fu skills in order to confront Tzeh-Yo-Tzuh, the highest of the gods (at least, that's my interpretation from this book; I'm not an expert in Chinese mythology). It's a fun story, full of action, but as it goes, we see the Monkey King try to convince everyone (and especially himself) that he's not actually a monkey. Ultimately, the story is about accepting your heritage, the same as the two more earthbound tales.

At the end, Yang ties all three stories together in a pretty novel manner. I would have been fine if he had brought each of them to an end separately, but this provides good closure to the book and ensures that we view them as a whole. Overall, it's an excellent book, with nice art that tells the story very well. I can see why it keeps winning awards.

Huh, that turned out longer than I expected. I'll probably have more stuff up tomorrow, or maybe later tonight if I really feel like it. But I doubt it.


  1. I'm glad you liked the ending, which I did too. I've noticed a few readers were a little jarred by the sudden mix of the fantastic and the more straight realistic story, which was my favorite. I related to quite a bit, raised in a Chinese family in the US (even if I'm not American born), and remember variations of the same experiences. There were more minorities in my town, so I imagine my town was less alienating though.

    Weirdly enough though, it's the extremely personal nature of it that also prevents me from totally embracing the comic. Tzeh-Yo-Tzuh, as far as I can make out--and I consulted with a more fluent speaker, because of a state I'm sure others raised in similar ways share, sucky chinese--means "chosen people" (which I admit is still a guess). And the monkey king story, is originally a Buddhist one, and Gene Yang has changed the details to make it a Christian one instead, visiting baby Jesus and all that. It's a little weird to read a story about people and stereotypes, and authenticity, with a story transformed that way. It's obviously a tale close to him, and it leads to a sort of self-acceptance, but in dressing it up in Chinese drag, say, he's still doing a bit hiding, I think. But then, his story and his book. It's certainly one of the better ones.

  2. Interesting. You know, I completely missed the Christian stuff, which is odd, because I was raised Christian and usually catch that sort of thing. I think I just wasn't expecting it here. But after reading your comment, I ran to check my copy of the book, and sure enough, the Monkey King and his cohorts play the role of the magi. Weird.

    I did think Tzeh-Yo-Tzuh seemed like the Christian God, which I though was a bit strange; I wasn't aware that there was a "God of gods" in Chinese mythology. So it's interesting to see that this was something Yang added to the story. Huh.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. I think the point about visiting Jesus was the importance of including a range of philosophies in one's world view. Being the only instance of this imagery and not even mentioning His name, I don't think you can say Yang tried to change the meaning of the parable to a Christian one.

    And since when are so many gods allowed in a Monotheism?