Welcome to the discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

Spoilers ahoy, everybody! Because there’s certainly one big surprise here to spoil.

American Born Chinese was published in 2006 by First Second as an original graphic novel. It’s not a story that would have been easy to serialize, and by not putting it in a traditional comic book format first, Yang is unconstrained by the page count rhythms and even the size of the pages – each page is drawn as a square, topped by a Chinese pictograph above each one.

The pictographs correspond to the three protagonists of the story: The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Danny (or Chin-Kee, depending on how you look at it; it’s Chin-Kee who’s pictured at the front of each of those chapters).

The first thread follows the Monkey King as he learns a lesson about self-acceptance and humility. He’s a mythological figure who placed himself in the company of the gods, eventually becoming powerful enough to vanquish them… or all but one. And when he meets him, Tze-Yo-Tzuh (“He who is”), he’s confronted with someone who eclipses all his feats, and who traps him under a mountain of rock. It takes him 500 years to learn humility.

The second thread follows Jin Wang, who also has an issue with self-acceptance – but contrary to the Monkey King, it’s a lesson more about pride than humility. (Although we’ll see there are elements of both at play with Jin.) He feels (and is treated) different from his classmates in his largely white California school. Eventually, he becomes friends with another boy, Wei-Chen Sun, who’s come from Taiwan. (Jin was born in San Francisco.) In a sense, Wei-Chen becomes the bottom of the pecking order – the bullied Jin gets to make snide comments about Wei-Chen being F.O.B. (“Fresh off the boat”), but in another sense, Wei-Chen is more confident and assured than Jin, who’s obsessed with fitting in. (To the point where later, he gets a ridiculous perm.)

And in the third thread, we have Danny, a white high-schooler with a problematic cousin, Chin-Kee – a walking, talking, R-and-L-switching Chinese stereotype.  Chin-Kee is horrible – both for Danny, and also for the reader. Just seeing him on the page is cringe-inducing, in the way that we wince when Ebony White shows up in old Spirit comics. Although here, Yang has a larger purpose with the caricature. In these segments, Danny would otherwise fit in, except his cousin's appearance and behavior make him feel like a pariah. 

Eventually, the three threads converge. We see Jin become Danny, a literal depiction of his assimilation and abandonment of his cultural identity. (Foreshadowed by an old woman telling him he could become whatever he wanted, at the cost of his soul.) And then we discover who Chin-Kee really is, too…and frankly, that surprised me. The first time I read the book, I think I caught the trajectory of Jin turning into Danny. But I fully expected Chin-Kee to be revealed as Wei-Chen, Jin’s friend who he gets increasingly embarrassed by. Instead, Yang folds in the Monkey King story, on a literal basis, with Wei-Chen being his son, and Chin-Kee being the Monkey King himself, looking in on Jin when he was forbidden to visit Wei-Chen anymore.

I really love this book. I think it’s a great allegory for issues surrounding assimilation and acceptance. As a white cis guy, I’ve never really had to face that stuff firsthand, though it certainly also speaks to individual insecurities as well. And the Jin/Wei-Chen relationship I’ve seen echoed in others, certainly – one outcast kicking down at another isn’t confined to racial identity. Look at the way the guys treat each other in Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club comics to see it in the nerd microcosm. Or, in movies, check out how cruel bullied Dawn Weiner could be when given the chance in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Anyway, I’ve yammered on and on about this book – and I haven’t even touch on how well-realized it is as a coming-of-age story regardless of racial identity (soap bubbles!). So now it’s your turn. Did you like it? Did it surprise you? What scenes or images stood out for you? Have you read any other of Yang’s work? (Now that I’ve reread this, Boxers and Saints is a must-read for me.)

Let’s hear what you think!

 

 

Tags: American Born Chinese, Bi-Weekly TPB, First Second, Gene Luen Yang, Gene Yang, OGNs, Yang

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I enjoyed this a lot on rereading, also (cringing and all). I was also completely surprised by Chin-Kee's identity. And more generally, that the story actually managed to merge the three story threads at the end. It just doesn't seem possible until Yang does it. I thought beginning the story with the monkey king thread was a bold move: it would surely have been more relateable to begin with Jin Wang, the thread with the most obvious autobiographical content.

I know... when it all comes together, it's like watching a magic trick!

Opening with the Monkey King made perfect sense to me, even on my first reading. It's cute and funny, and pulls the reader right in -- even if, as for some people, autobiography is a tough sell. Maybe the Monkey King universalizes the story a bit more, too, in the Scott McCloud sense*. In a story about racial identity, it pulls people not of that ethnicity right on board with a character that could be anybody, rather than one person of one specific ethnicity.

And in retrospect, it sends a signal that the whole story -- all three of them -- are fables in some way. It puts even the down to earth details into a mythological context, even if it isn't apparent from the start. 

*By which I mean McCloud's notion in Understanding Comics that cartoonier illustrations pull readers in more handily, since there are fewer details they can react to as "not me." Anthropomorphic critters work in a similar way! I heard an interview on Word Balloon with Art & Franco, explaining that they decided to do Action Cat and Adventure Bug as animals when they considered ethnic representation issues in Tiny Titans. With animal superheroes, every kid could imagine themselves as any of the characters!

Whenever I ran across this title in "best of" lists I wondered what I'd missed. Now I know, and I'm encouraged to get more first-hand info. Thanks, guys!

...As far as comics about Asian American's identity , etc. goeth...Do any a' youse dudes remember a syndicated newspaper strip called SECRET ASIAN MAN , IIRC - Yes , a SYNDICATED , as in " reg'lr daily pepperz..." strip , which I assume is discontinued now ?

  I've heard of ABC , haven't read it , haven't time now to read this whole line even !!!!!

I enjoyed this book a lot... it was a really powerful work.  I'm not sure I'd consider it autobiographical though. To me, it seems more concerned with themes than actual events... alienation, identity, and the cost of fitting in.  

On the first read through, I didn't expect the stories to interact at all.  It seemed appropriate that they were there to reinforce each other thematically, but the way they dovetailed into one tale caught me totally off guard.  I thought it was really well done and it added layers to the book.

For the Monkey King section, I was quite surprised to learn that it was basically an adaption of the first part of "Journey to the West".  I knew the character was famous from that story and I figured Yang was using its milieu, but the first section of this was literally lifted from that work.  The way he tied that existing story together with the rest of the book was just brilliant.

For me though, I think I found the Jin Wang sections to have the most affecting moments.  The times when the characters showed conflicted feelings really drove home the themes.  "Something made me want to beat him up", just packed a punch. As did the classmate, who stood up for Jin in the past, telling him he wasn't the right kind of people.  And the way the line, "... you- you- Chinese person", can be interpreted multiple ways.  From an emotional perspective, this is the heart of the story.

The stereotyped laden Chin-Kee section was probably my least favourite section of the book, yet without it, the rest of the work wouldn't have the same resonance.  The choice to add a "laugh track" like a sitcom helped to make the stereotypes tolerable, as we could appreciate it being in such poor taste, much like some sitcoms.  Meanwhile, this let us appreciate "Danny's" extreme feelings of embarrassment and self loathing.

Overall, a very satisfying read.

A question I have, did everyone else feel that Jin's section was the main through line of the book, with the Monkey King and Chin-Kee sections acting almost as a comment on that section of the storyline?  

That's how I initially read it, but I think one could make the case that the modern day sections are a comment on the tale of the Monkey King.  What did everyone else think?

 

Hmmm... I read it as both the Monkey King and Chin-Kee sections working as backdrops for the Jin story -- which might not be fictionalized autobiography, but read that way to me. And since that seemed more "real," the others seemed to work on a meta level.

I guess you could read Jin's struggles as one more aspect of the Monkey King story, in a Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" sense -- or even a Platonic sense, where the myth is what's real and we are all reflections of it. 

As for the laugh track on the Chin-Kee section, that's a good point about making that somehow more palatable -- in that it assures us that the author is aware how crass a caricature Chin-Kee is. That technique reminds me of the flashback to Mallory's home life in Natural Born Killers, where we see how abusive her father (played by Rodney Dangerfield) was, but it's framed as an old sitcom. It's horrifying, but at the same time, it conveys the feeling that without the sitcom gloss, it's simply too painful to remember at all. 

Yes, that's exactly how it seemed to me. Even if it's not autobiographical, it is much more naturalistic than the other two. The mythological talking animals and the laugh track both set those threads apart as metaphorical, at least by comparison.

Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:

Hmmm... I read it as both the Monkey King and Chin-Kee sections working as backdrops for the Jin story -- which might not be fictionalized autobiography, but read that way to me. And since that seemed more "real," the others seemed to work on a meta level.

I actually got more out of re-reading this book than I did my initial read. First time I just thought it was okay, but this time I think it really popped for me. It was only about a year or two ago that I read it, and I didn't remember much about it. Even the second time I was surprised by the ending, and the way all three tales came together.

I was mildly surprised (although I don't know why) to see the derogatory term "F.O.B.". I've pretty much always heard it from one Asian person describing another Asian person. Usually about either their hairstyle or the way they are dressed.

Strangely enough, Fresh off the Boat is the title of one of this season's new sitcoms on ABC.

"You're either on the boat or off the boat." -- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Years since I read that book Cap. What does that quote refer to? I can't figure it out.



Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) said:

I actually got more out of re-reading this book than I did my initial read. First time I just thought it was okay, but this time I think it really popped for me. It was only about a year or two ago that I read it, and I didn't remember much about it. Even the second time I was surprised by the ending, and the way all three tales came together.

I was mildly surprised (although I don't know why) to see the derogatory term "F.O.B.". I've pretty much always heard it from one Asian person describing another Asian person. Usually about either their hairstyle or the way they are dressed.

 

 

Funny, I've always heard "F.O.B." used regarding newly-arrived Irish immigrants.

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