COMICS: John Reviews “American, Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

As contradictory as it sounds, I tend to read superhero comic books (intended for ages 11 and up) but avoid YA fiction. Perhaps this is because comics have been “aging up” over the decades and often seem more mature, or perhaps there is a greater stigma attached to reading something that is specifically stated to be for an audience younger than me. Whatever the reason for my prejudice, I have begun to realize that I should learn to overcome it if I don’t want to miss out on some truly enjoyable creative works.

This brings us to today’s review: American, Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. A graphic novel published for the YA audience, ABC tells three seemingly unrelated stories of personal growth that eventually dovetail into one another for their conclusion. This is particularly impressive when you learn what the three stories are:

The first story is the classic Chinese tale of the legendary Monkey King’s Journey to the West. Those of you who watch anime may recognize many of the elements of this story, as the original legend was the inspiration for the mega-hit anime series Dragon Ball (not to be confused with its thematically inferior sequel, Dragon Ball Z.) The legend begins with the Monkey King becoming a great deity of the earth, but despite his accomplishments he is cast out of the Heavenly Dinner Party because is a monkey and does not wear shoes. This spurs him to become a being of legendary power, equal only to the greatest of gods. He gains said power and impresses all of the lesser deities, but eventually is humbled by the greatest of all gods.

Meanwhile, the second story tells of a young Chinese-American boy named Jin Wang who desperately wants to be accepted as normal by the other children in his school. After failing (and becoming a target for racism and hate-speech), he befriends the only other Asian-American boy in school. When he finally works up the nerve to talk to his crush and take her out on a date, her brother tells him never to see her again because he “needs to make sure she only dates people who are right for her.” Jin Wang is furiously upset, and ends up burning every bridge to those he cares about in an effort to win acceptance from the people who hated him.

Finally, Danny typical American teenager who turns new shades of embarrassed colors every time his cousin Chin-Kee visits him from China. Chin-Kee is the biggest Chinese racial and cultural stereotype committed to paper since the days of Fu Manchu, but he is Danny’s cousin all the same. Amazingly enough, Chin-Kee is liked by many of the students in Danny’s school, and Danny finds out that he has far less to be embarrassed about than he had previously thought.

These three storylines do converge (even the Monkey King story), in a rather interesting and humorous way. The convergence takes things into the realm of the fantastic, as it would have to when talking monkeys are involved. Nevertheless, the conclusion does bring things to a tidy and moral-teaching resolution, showing that it is important to embrace your cultural identity and heritage rather than attempt to bury it.

Despite its use of three separate and interweaving narratives, ABC is impressively short. I was able to finish it in one bus ride (approx. 1 hour) with time to spare. I suppose one benefit of YA fiction is that it does not intentionally draw out its story length so as to appear “impressive” or “legitimate,” since such things would actually dissuade young readers from picking up the book. The artwork is clean and sharp, with vibrant colors and a cartoonish sensibility. In fact, I was reminded of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Monkey character from “Dexter’s Laboratory” whenever I read a Monkey King chapter. Chin-Kee reminded me of “National Lampoon’s Mr. Wong,” a very intentionally offensive racial caricature cartoon. Page layouts are easy to follow without being boring. The structure of the stories (alternating each chapter) makes the book ideal for busy readers who like frequent story breaks. While Chin-Kee’s dialogue was so cringe-worthy that it made me nearly unable to read his outbursts, I was able to ignore them and follow the story perfectly well. If he makes you uncomfortable when you read it, then you understand the point of his story.

All in all, I would recommend checking American, Born Chinese out from your local library. It is fun and enlightening to read once, but may not be worth the money to purchase it (nor the shelf space to keep it forever) unless the issue of racism against Asian-Americans in suburbia strikes particularly close to home.

NOTE: According to an interview with Gene Luen Yang, ABC was originally released serially as a webcomic. I believe this makes it a Collected Edition rather than an Original Graphic Novel. Also, he gets bonus points in my book for including multiple story references to “The Transformers.” I, too, wanted to be Optimus Prime when I grew up.

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One Response

  1. Although YA fiction has become a lot bigger in the last five or so years, it generally seems to fall into two camps: the chick lit “Gossip Girl”-type stories, and the super-serious “problem novels”, neither of which tend to appeal to boys. Non-girly lighthearted fiction or adventure books are rarely labeled YA books, and are either marketed toward a younger demographic, meant for adults (like Jon Krakeur’s books) or are in the comic/graphic novel form. It’s a real shame too, because those types of stories are desperately needed in YA fiction. I still read YA fiction occasionally, but I’m usually disappointed; the stories are melodramatic and stupid, and I just don’t care.

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