What are two themes in American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang?

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The theme of a work of literature can be defined as its message or the underlying "big idea." With this definition in mind, a theme can also be understood as a life lesson a reader can gain from reading and thinking about the work of literature. In American Born Chinese ...

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The theme of a work of literature can be defined as its message or the underlying "big idea." With this definition in mind, a theme can also be understood as a life lesson a reader can gain from reading and thinking about the work of literature. In American Born Chinese, two themes dominate: "be yourself" and "appearances can be deceiving."

Being yourself is an important message for readers of this graphic novel. The story deals with challenging issues about adolescence, personal culture, and identity; whether the character is a monkey or a boy, trying to be something different than who he actually is causes the character in question pain. Both the Monkey King and Jin spend a lot of energy trying to be something they are not, and these efforts ultimately prove to be futile. Though being yourself is easier said than done, American Born Chinese does illustrate the importance of being happy with one's self and seeing one's own gifts and uniqueness as special and valuable in their own right.

Additionally, American Born Chinese is a cautionary tale, warning readers that appearances can sometimes deceive. The characterization of Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King, and the process by which they all become one, represents the different ways people try on different images of themselves. As most adolescents know, showing others the truth about oneself makes one vulnerable, so sometimes appearances are protective, but they aren't always the real thing.

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In American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, two themes are identity and acceptance. The book is made up of three narratives, about three different characters who end up having a great deal in common as the story develops.

All of our main characters are desperate to shed something connected to themselves—the Monkey King’s species, Jin’s Chinese heritage, and Danny’s cousin—for the sake of how other people perceive them.

Jin Wang is one of these characters and...

...all he really wants is to fit in with the rest of the kids...

With Jin we find a young man searching for his identity in a school where—for a time—he is the only Asian American student. Ironically, Jin also wants acceptance, but when another Asian American student arrives from Taiwan, Jin has no desire to accept him. The students in his school cannot see him for who he is, but only that he is Asian.

The Monkey King is also one looking for acceptance—hurt when the other dieties (gods) brush his aside as unimportant simply because he is a monkey; his greatest desire is to prove that he has value. In this, he is also searching for his identity: that which makes him exceptional simply for who he is.

He may be a monkey, but the Monkey King is a hard worker, committed to being his best. We read that...

He spent his days studying the arts of Kung-Fu. He quickly mastered thousands of minor disciplines as well as the Four Major Heavenly Disciplines, prerequisites to Immortality.

Danny is the last of the three major characters. He has a great life until his very Chinese cousin comes to visit from China. Chin-Kee is awkwardly sterotypical of someone from an old comic. It's uncomfortable to see this kind of racial presentation on paper, but several characters in the story express their own racial views as well—speaking to the issue of racism.

Besides the desire of the characters to find a better place for themselves in their world, the story also presents a life-truth—that sometimes there is a price exacted for finding acceptance among others, and there is a cautionary note in the book:

It's easy to become anything you wish...so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul.

This, then, introduces the danger one faces if he (or she) is willing to do anything to feel accepted. Finding the balance and acting wisely are important aspects of each character's search. And while the story concentrates on the characters' searching for identity and acceptance for Chinese Americans, these themes apply to everyone, regardless of culture or race, giving the story a wide appeal.

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