American Born Chinese
Weaving three seemingly unrelated stories together, Gene Luen Yang creates a modern American coming of age story. The story of an immigrant is tempered with the magic of Chinese fable and the most overt parody of Chinese culture, producing a charming and intelligent whole that will appeal to many young readers. Even relunctant readers will enjoy the visual playfulness and spare style of the work. Female readers may be less interested in the male perspective driving the work, but may find the folklore aspect appealing.
In one part, Jin Wang finds himself at a new school and isolated as one of only two Asians. At first his only friend is an abusive older student who uses his physicality to dominate the smaller and more mild-mannered Jin. When that “friend” leaves, Jin is once again alone. Despite every attempt to distance himself, he becomes entangled in the lives of new Taiwanese student Wei-chen Sun and the formally off-limits Suzy Nakamura. As the three friends struggle to survive the torrent of racial slurs from their classmates, Wei-chen and Suzy begin dating and Jin finds himself falling in love with Amelia Harris, a blonde every-girl who represents everything American. With the help and encouragement of Wei-chen, Jin is finally able to ask Amelia on a date. Unfortunately Jin’s parents want him to concentrate on his education and will not allow him to date, so he asks Wei-chen to lie for him. Though reluctant, his friend covers for him and all are surprised when the experience goes well. Before Jin can work up the courage to ask Amelia out again, however, her friend Greg asks him to promise not to ask her out again because he does not think Jin is right for her. Confused and conflicted, Jin finds himself alone with Suzy. After listening to her recounting feeling out of place, Jin suddenly attempts to kiss her. The result is hurt feelings throughout the group. Jin begins distancing himself and reinvents himself as an All-American boy.
In another part, the Monkey King is angered when he is denied entrance to a party with the deities. Though he has mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, he is still a monkey and therefore unwelcome with the gods. The rejection ruins the Monkey King’s usually high spirits and he begins changing. He demands that his subjects wear shoes and he begins studying hard to master more disciplines. When called by the deities to be punished for his outburst at the party, he uses the opportunity to visit each deity and demonstrate his mastery. Most are impressed and respond favorably. Tze-Yo-Tzuh, however, teaches Monkey an important lesson and imprisons the arrogant Monkey under a pile of rocks. After five-hundred years under the rocks, Monkey is visited by Wong Lai-Tsao, a monk on a quest. Wong has been sent on a mission and has been told that Monkey will assist him. Though Monkey mocks him at first, he finds himself impressed with Wong’s faith and lack of fear. When Wong is attacked, Monkey finally relents and frees himself from under the pile of rocks simply by returning to his “true” form. From then on he serves Wong on his mission.
The third story revolves around all-American Danny, a popular and athletic student who feels he must move to a new school due the humiliation of his cousin Chin-Kee visiting from China. Chin-Kee is a gross exaggeration of stereotypes who manages to offend just about everyone he comes into contact with. Danny confides in his new friend Steve, and is encouraged not to worry because this school is different. Danny is not reassured, however. Finally he confronts his cousin and all three stories are tied together as it is revealed that Danny is Jin Wang’s alter ego and Chin-Kee is the trickster Monkey coming to check up on him.
The overall theme is that one must be true to oneself and delight in their difference rather than spend their time trying to be something else. Both the Monkey King and Jin Wang (in the form of Danny) focus on denying their true selves and the results are disasterous. The Monkey King is trapped under rocks for five-hundred years and Danny is hounded into fleeing his school each year. In the end, Jin Wang realizes his mistake and tries to reach out to his old friend Wei-chen who has turned into a pleasure-seeking thug. It is revealed that Wei-chen is actually the son of the Monkey King sent to look over Jin Wang. He is training to be an emissary and his test of virtue was to spend forty years without being seduced by human vice. He failed by lying for Jin, and the Monkey King has visited Danny (Jin Wang) every year as Chin-Kee since Wei-chen refuses his visits. Now Wang has an opportunity to atone for his previous mistakes by embracing his differentness. The Monkey King gives him a business card for an Asian bakery. Wang hangs out at the bakery until he finally encounters Wei-chen and makes amends.
The story is well constructed and each element adds to the whole. Visually the work is appealing and easy to follow. Most readers will find the three stories separately interesting and be surprised by the twist. Yang manages to present his theme without being heavy-handed or preachy. Anyone who has ever felt different should find this work appealing and engaging.