While reading American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, I had to consistently remind myself that it was graphic novel for young adults. Without that reminder I found myself growing a little weary of the premise — dealing with racism in America, trying to find your identity, etc.
But when I kept in mind that this book is not meant for the jaded, cynical eyes of an adult reader I found myself delighted with the way Yang told this story.
Yang presents his point through three stories. First we have the tale of the Monkey King who goes to a dinner party of the gods and is rejected because he’s a monkey. The gods are not nice and make the Monkey King embarrassed of who he is. He spends the rest of his story trying to overcome that.
Then we’re introduced to Jin Wang, an American boy of Chinese parents. Jin’s dealing with all kinds of crap being the new, different kid at school. He longs to be a Transformer when he grows up (and the way this toy represents the overarching theme of the book is almost, but not quite, too precious). Then one day another new Asian kid, Wei Chen, shows up. Eventually, they become friends. Once they reach high school, Wei begins dating the only Asian girl, Suzy, and Jin develops a crush on a white girl. His pursuit of Amelia is sweet and funny and not unlike the things all teens regardless of cultural background go through.
The third story is a sort of sitcom about a blonde American teen named Danny and his Chinese cousin, Chin-kee, who comes to visit and wrecks all kinds of havoc on Danny’s life. Chin-kee is the essence of all kinds of Asian stereotypes — he has slits for eyes, big, beaver-like buck teeth, and speaks with a heavy accent. Chin-kee attends school with Danny and continues to embarrass him by answering all the questions the teachers ask, peeing in the captain of the basketball team’s Coke, and all sort of other things that play into the Asian stereotype. The Chink-kee scenes can be somewhat painful and the illustrated reminder of a sitcom’s laugh track at his most asinine moments made me cringe. It reminded me of the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” where Mickey Rooney plays the Asian landlord. It’s awful.
Each of the three threads running through the novel are well-told and illustrated, they stand on their own. It’s when Yang starts to weave them together that things start to feel a bit contrived and convenient. Well, at least the Monkey King part. Part of it is that I enjoyed that aspect of the story so much I didn’t want it sullied by the other two more mundane pieces of the book. That being said when the Chin-kee and Jin stories collide, I can see how a younger reader would find that powerful and profound. As a thirtysomething, it seemed kind of obvious.
But, despite all that, American Born Chinese is a quick, captivating tale of a young man struggling with who he is. It’s a coming of age story that’s more than worth the 2 hours it will take you to read it.