American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

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Synopsis

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Last Updated on September 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

Award-winning American Born Chinese, penned by Gene Luen Yang and colored by Lark Pien, is a multinarrative graphic novel about a teenage boy named Jin Wang who struggles to find and accept his cultural identity. Jin is the only Chinese American student at his new school, and all he really wants is to fit in with the rest of the kids, especially Amelia Harris, the pretty American girl with whom he falls in love. But Amelia never notices Jin, and he fades into the background. Soon, Jin is not the only Asian American student in his school—Wei-Chen arrives from Taiwan. But who wants to be friends with an FOB? After countless attempts to fit into the mainstream crowd, Jin settles for Wei-Chen’s friendship.

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Intertwined with Jin’s story are those of other characters who also do not fit into their surroundings. The Monkey King has ruled for thousands of years and has mastered all the heavenly disciplines, yet he yearns to leave the monkeys behind to join the ranks of the gods. His foolish acts get him into five hundred years of trouble at the hands of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, and the Monkey King must then rely on the trust of a stranger to lead him toward redemption. In another story, Danny is a popular, athletic teenager whose life is amazing until his cousin Chin-Kee arrives from China. Chin-Kee is the epitome of Chinese stereotypes—eating cat gizzards, excelling in classes, speaking in broken English—and Danny wants to hide him away and pretend he does not exist. But Chin-Kee ends up going to school with Danny every day, ruining Danny’s reputation.

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These three narratives alternate throughout the novel and arrive at a daring crossroads at the climax of the story. In the end, Jin realizes much about his perceptions of life and identity and sets off on his own path of redemption.  Luckily, his best friend is there waiting.

Published in 2006 by Roaring Book Press, American Born Chinese was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in the category of Young People’s Literature.  In the following year, the graphic novel picked up the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. The novel has won numerous other awards and has received placement on “top ten comics” lists in Booklist and Time. Yang wrote American Born Chinese as a way to explore his own experiences growing up as an Asian American, and his novel is a valuable resource for exploring themes that revolve around acceptance, diversity, and identity.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1231

Author: Gene Luen Yang (b. 1973)

First published: 2006

Type of work: Graphic Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-Age

Time of plot: The early twenty-first century and a legendary past

Locale: United States and China

Principal characters

Jin Wang, an American-born boy of Chinese descent

Wei-Chen Sun, a boy in Jin's class who has recently emigrated from Taiwan

Suzy Nakamura, a Japanese American girl in Jin's class

Amelia Harris, a white American girl, Jin's crush

Danny, a white American teenager

Chin-Kee, Danny's cousin and the embodiment of numerous Chinese stereotypes

Melanie, a white American girl, Danny's crush

The Monkey King, a deity and the ruler of Flower-Fruit Mountain

Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of the universe

Wong Lai-Tsao, a Chinese monk

The Story

Gene Luen Yang's award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, published in 2006, tells three stories that initially appear to have little to do with each other; however, the three individual tales are ultimately revealed to be intensely intertwined, forming a single cohesive narrative. The first tale is that of the Monkey King, a Chinese literary character perhaps best known from the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West. At the beginning of his story, the Monkey King, a deity and the ruler of Flower-Fruit Mountain, attempts to attend a dinner party in heaven. Upon arriving at the party, however, he is denied entry because he is not wearing shoes. His arguments prove ineffective, and after being told that he is just a monkey, he grows angry and attacks the partygoers.

After returning to Flower-Fruit Mountain, he commands his monkey subjects to wear shoes and embarks on an intensive kung fu training program, eventually taking on a larger, more humanoid form and declaring he must now be known as the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. While he is now able to defeat numerous mythological figures, he is unable to impress Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator, who tells him that despite his attempts to change himself, he was created to be and always will be a monkey. As punishment for defying the god, the Monkey King is trapped under a pile of rocks for five hundred years, until a monk named Wong Lai-Tsao encourages him to return to his original monkey form. The Monkey King joins Wong Lai-Tsao, whom Tze-Yo-Tzuh has tasked with delivering three packages to the newborn Jesus, on his journey and later becomes the emissary of Tze-Yo-Tzuh. When his firstborn son wants to become an emissary as well, the Monkey King sends him to live among humans for forty years as a test of virtue.

In the second story, a boy named Jin Wang begins to attend elementary school in a new town. One of the few children of Asian descent in his school, Jin, who was born in the United States and previously lived in a community with more Asian American residents, faces various forms of racism in his daily life. Seeking to be accepted by his classmates, he avoids his Japanese American classmate Suzy Nakamura and initially resists becoming friends with Wei-Chen Sun, a Taiwanese boy who enrolls in the school after him. A few years later, Jin develops a crush on his white classmate Amelia Harris, with whom he goes on a date. After the date, a classmate named Greg tells Jin not to ask Amelia out again, as he believes that spending time with Jin will damage Amelia's reputation. Upset about this, Jin impulsively kisses Suzy, who is dating Wei-Chen, and consequently has a falling out with the other boy. Consumed by his desire to fit in, Jin goes to bed that night and awakens in the morning, transformed.

The third story is that of Danny, a blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager who is dismayed when his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee comes for a visit. Chin-Kee, who embodies countless offensive stereotypes, proceeds to embarrass Danny in front of his friends and classmates, behaving inappropriately toward Danny's crush, Melanie, and even urinating in Danny's friend's drink. Angered by Chin-Kee's behavior, Danny hits his cousin. After a long fight, Chin-Kee's head flies off, revealing the Monkey King's visage underneath. Having revealed his true self, the Monkey King encourages Danny to do the same, and Danny is revealed to be Jin. The Monkey King explains that he is attempting to act as Jin's conscience and began to visit Jin after Wei-Chen, who is truly the Monkey King's son, turned his back on his mission. Having learned a lesson about self-acceptance from the Monkey King, Jin next seeks out Wei-Chen, rekindling their friendship.

Critical Evaluation

Through its three connected stories, American Born Chinese tells a complex coming-of-age tale in which acceptance of oneself is the key to happiness. The Monkey King and Jin both desire to be perceived as someone other than who they are, at the expense of their true selves. Jin's transformation into Danny serves as a literal depiction of his attempt at assimilation: in trying to fit in with his white classmates, he physically transforms until he resembles them. Both Jin and Wei-Chen are shown with Transformers toys, which likewise underscore the narrative's themes of transformation, assimilation, and identity.

In writing and drawing American Born Chinese, Yang drew heavily from both Chinese culture and historical depictions of people of Asian descent in the United States. The tale of the Monkey King was popularized by the novel Journey to the West, believed to have been composed in the sixteenth century CE by the writer Wu Cheng'en. Yang follows that original story relatively closely, though he also incorporates elements that reflect his own Christian faith, demonstrating the importance of Christianity among portions of the Asian American community; for example, the Monkey King's journey echoes that of the biblical Wise Men, and the Buddha, a crucial figure in Journey to the West, is replaced with Tze-Yo-Tzuh, a figure who is more similar to the Christian god.

In addition to Chinese and Chinese American culture, Yang engages with the stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans that permeated much of American popular culture for centuries. The character of Chin-Kee is an outlandish caricature whose name references a racial slur and who embodies many stereotypes prominent in the early twentieth century and beyond: he has exaggerated features such as buck teeth and a long braid, speaks in a heavy accent, and at one point is portrayed eating cat gizzards. Yang likewise references more contemporary incarnations of those stereotypes; in one scene, Chin-Kee loudly sings the pop song “She Bangs” in a manner similar to that of William Hung, a Chinese American man who became the subject of ridicule after singing the song during his audition for the competitive reality show American Idol in 2004. Through this character, Yang calls attention to the stereotypes plaguing the Asian American community and the ways in which some individuals may be tempted to escape that painful legacy through self-transformation.

Further Information

  • Chen, Alice C. “The Humble Comic.” SFGate. Hearst Communications, 11 May 2008. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/The-Humble-Comic-3214214.php>.
  • Davis, Rocío G. “Childhood and Ethnic Visibility in Gene Yang's American Born Chinese.” Prose Studies 35.1 (2013): 7–15. Literary Reference Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=87070527&site=lrc-live>.
  • “The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.” ALA. Amer. Lib. Assn., 2007. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=bookmediaawards&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=148145>.

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