Racial melancholia is a term used to explain the melancholy, or depression and self-rejection, that a person may feel when they do not fit into the mainstream American culture and the expectation of being “white.” This identity crisis is often experienced by American children born to immigrant parents, as they neither fit in completely with either the American culture or their parents’ culture. Instead, it is as if they are caught in between two worlds.
You will see how this concept persists throughout the graphic novel American Born Chinese, as the plots of three seemingly different stories intertwine, revolve around, and ultimately connect through this feeling of self-hatred and a longing to belong. The characters in the stories are so caught up in trying to be accepted by everyone that they reject their own identities, internalize the stereotypes and stigmas about their cultures, and fantasize about transforming into something they’re not. All the while, they do not recognize their own strengths and completely miss out on what is beautiful about their own cultures.
For example, the central story is about an American kid named Jin who is born to Chinese immigrant parents. At first, he fits in easily with the other Chinese American kids that he grows up with in Chinatown, San Francisco, but when his parents decide to move to the white suburbs to give him a good education, he is immediately treated like “the other” by his teachers and peers. They can’t pronounce his name and assume he is an immigrant even though he was born in America, has no accent, and grew up with the same pop culture, slang, and style as them. They call him racial slurs, perpetuate stereotypes about Chinese culture, and lump him together with Suzy, the only other Asian American in the school, joking that they are in an arranged marriage. Jin becomes so desperate and bitter about not fitting in that when the first Asian immigrant, Wei-Chen, arrives at school, he jumps at the chance to reject him and distance himself from him, even when he becomes his loyal friend. Later, when he falls in love with the classically blonde, beautiful white girl in his class, he tries to make his hair curly like her white male friends. Although she agrees to go out with him, her friends warn him to stay away from her. As a result, Jin begins to fantasize about becoming white and develops an alter-ego who becomes cool and popular.
As you read the novel, you will notice the similarities between all three stories and wonder how they are all connected. What does an ancient legend about a Monkey King have in common with a modern-day story about an Asian American kid? When Jin rejects Wei-Chen and Danny rejects his cousin Chin-kee, are they actually rejecting parts of themselves? Are they three different stories, or are they actually the inner conflicts and feelings of the main character, Jin? Above all, will he find a way to accept his Chinese side in the end?