Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 158

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang, coloured by Lark Pien
Genre notes: growing up, social issues, race
240 pages
ISBN: 1596431520 (Amazon)

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). 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 well.

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