American Born Chinese
Created by: Gene Luen Yang
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596431520 (Amazon)
It’s funny that the most notable thing I can tell you about this book is that it’s in colour. Actually, no. That’s a terrible way to begin a review of a good book. Instead, how about something like this.
I first encountered (back before it had the name) the idea of race-bending, or at least came to the realization of how offensive it could be, in the Bruce Lee biopic Dragon way back in 1993. In it, Lee becomes offended while watching Mickey Rooney essay a devastatingly racist depiction (all in good humour!) of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I had seen Breakfast before this but had not really understood the import of the scene. Growing up I had several Asian-American friends and I wasn’t able to connect Rooney’s performance with the ethnic identities of any of these friends. Dragon, in almost every way, seemed to me an unremarkable movie, but I do credit it for making me aware that racial matters did still exist.
(I lived in a warm, Southern Californian bubble in which I had imagined the world had finally reached a sort of colourblind enlightenment. Silly me, I know.)
Those top four panels are gratuitously heartbreaking. Been there.
Over the intervening years between then and now, I would come to notice more and more often how little represented the Asian segment of our population was in the American film product. It seemed that if you were an Asian actor, you could either perform martial arts stunts or you were B.D. Wong. Somewhere in the mid 2000s or so (the dating here may be apocryphal), I ran into Adrian Tomine’s one-page comic about his life in the shadow of Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong. I was furious that it had taken me so long to see this kind of thing, that none of those people who handled my education had ever even broached this kind of subject. In 2008, I encountered an NPR piece on Gedde Watanabe, the actor who played Long Duk Dong. And then in January 2009, I came across Derek Kirk Kim’s reaction to the abominable casting decisions for The Last Airbender, a post treating the concepts of stolen heritage, yellowface, and Hollywood’s unchecked progress down the road to overt racism.
This is right about the time that the term racebending (an etymological sibling to the Avatar’s own airbending) came into being. Essentially, it refers to the alteration of a character’s race in film in order to cast a more profitable actor. This usually means a white actor. You have Charlton Heston playing a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil. There’s Mickey Rooney (Mickey Rooney!) playing a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or Jake Gyllenhal as a Persian prince in, wait for it, The Prince of Persia. Or Charlton Heston playing Moses. Or pretty much anyone in the cast of The Last Airbender.
It was interesting to reread American Born Chinese in light of the shifting pop-cultural landscape that the Last Airbender casting introduced.* As it turns out, one of Gene Yang’s goals in American Born Chinese is to explore racebending of a different sort. And it relates to everything I’ve written above.
Still, it’s funny that the most notable thing I can tell you about this book is that it’s in colour.
That might not strike you as odd, but really, for the type of story Yang tells, the comics industry has almost universally awarded such stories a black and white printing. If not autobiographical, American Born Chinese is the kind of story that might very well be. Examining the difficulty experienced by a child born in one country to parents from another country, Yang explores the kind of dissatisfaction common to many in similar circumstances. The desire to blend in, the need to eliminate traces of heritage. I’ve never felt these things in my life, but through Yang’s story, I could begin to understand them in a manner other than pure academic assent.
Yang weaves three stories together in a masterful way and each sings of a different life’s lesson. There is the story of the Monkey King (the classic Chinese figure), the story of Jin and his difficulty fitting into a school in which he is one of a small handful of students of Asian descent, and the story of Danny, a Caucasian boy who is plagued by his ridiculous cousin Chin-Kee (who appears as a stereotyped caricature complete with affected speech—Ls for Rs and vice versa). Strangely, the Chin-Kee episodes actually carry a laugh track.
The way Yang uses these three distinct narratives to ferret out his purpose is very nearly masterful. His aim is to explore the drive for young Asian men in America to whitewash their experience, habits, and heritage in order to better assimilate into a culture that simply refuses to understand them. For the bulk of the book, Yang’s characters themselves attempt to bend their own race into something less offensive/more palatable to the racists who populate their daily environments. For a long time Yang allows his three stories to masquerade as bearing no relation to each other. He does this well enough that when the curtain is pulled back allowing the reader to see how all of the gears work together, the reader should experience more satisfaction than frustration.
Beyond the excellent storytelling tricks, Yang does some interesting stuff syncretizing Eastern and Western cultures. Even while using the legendary Chinese figure, the Monkey King (Sun Wukong), Yang employs another figure whose words ring with familiarity to those with at least a passing acquaintance with the Judeo-Christian tradition. When addressing the Monkey King, Tze-Yo-Tzuh (the lord of all the deities) says, “I am Tze-Yo-Tzuh. I was, I am, and I shall forever be. I have searched your soul, little monkey. I know your most hidden thoughts. I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest. Where can you flee from my presence? It was I who formed your inmost being, I who knit you together in the womb of that rock.” And then, 500 years later, the Monkey King travels to take part in the Nativity. So that’s interesting.
While American Born Chinese is probably best appreciated by those who have felt the same feelings that Yang confronts through his protagonists, he is also careful to make his work accessible even to those of us who will never benefit from the privilege of that particular form of suffering. Yang’s work here demands empathy and does so in colour and does so well.
This is not to downplay the efforts at educating the public about these kinds of race issues over the past couple decades. More it’s just to say that I personally noticed much more success in disseminating information during the Racebending fiasco. And obviously, this won’t be and shouldn’t be the end of the issue.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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