Graphic Novels · YA Novels

Identity Crisis: American Born Chinese

Growing up is tough. It’s even tougher when you are the only Chinese kid at school and all you want is to fit in. Gene Luen Yang captures what it means to grow up as the child of immigrants in America. Yang tackles big issues like racism, stereotypes, and forging your own identity with humour, sophistication, and compassion. American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award and the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award.

“Jin Wang starts at a new school where he’s the only Chinese-American student. When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn’t want to be associated with an FOB like him. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he’s in love with an all-American girl. Danny is an all-American boy: great at basketball, popular with the girls. But his obnoxious Chinese cousin Chin-Kee’s annual visit is such a disaster that it ruins Danny’s reputation at school, leaving him with no choice but to transfer somewhere he can start all over again. The Monkey King has lived for thousands of years and mastered the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines. He’s ready to join the ranks of the immortal gods in heaven. But there’s no place in heaven for a monkey. Each of these characters cannot help himself alone, but how can they possibly help each other? They’re going to have to find a way—if they want fix the disasters their lives have become.” Macmillan Publishing 

Yang, 2006

biblio basics 

  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  • Publisher: First Second Books , 2006
  • Format & Genre: YA Graphic Novel
  • Age Range: 14 years and up
  • Themes: Transformation, Stereotypes, Identity
  • Source: Purchased Copy

American Born Chinese is masterfully written, and has three stories woven together which initially seem unrelated. The novel begins with the tale of the Monkey King, and his desire to take his place with the other gods. The second tale is of Jin Wang, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants in San Fransisco. When the family moves from Chinatown to the predominantly white suburbs, Jin Wang must navigate being one of the only Asian students at his new school. The final tale is of Danny, an average white American teen who must entertain his unbearable Chinese cousin Chin-Kee on his annual visit. Chin-Kee embarrasses Danny so badly that each time he visits he has to change schools.

American Born Chinese, 2006

Yang captures the feelings of anyone growing up “different” in our society, whether its because you were born somewhere else, look different, speak a different language, eat different food, or just like different things. Being an “other” in our society is often painful in childhood, and it might seem easier to just blend in rather than stand out. This is the choice Jin Wang is faced with when his family relocates to a white neighbourhood. He is made fun of for how he looks, what he eats, and the things he likes. All Jin Wang wants is to be like the “normal” white kids at his school, but no matter how hard he tries he can’t shake his Chinese-ness. This theme of identity in the story really resonated with me, and I think it resonates with all of us in some way or another. There are always things about ourselves we would like to change, but why do we want to change them? Is it for us? Or is it so we can be more like the people we surround ourselves with?

Because the novel has a primary theme of racial identity, it deals with Asian stereotypes head on. All of these stereotypes are personified in Chin-Kee, a play on a derogatory term for someone of Asian, specifically Chinese, descent. Chin-Kee has literal yellow skin, long hair in a traditional queue, he speaks with a very thick accent, is very academically successful (even in subjects he should theoretically have no knowledge of, like American history), and generally behaves contrary to normal Western conventions. By creating this caricature of stereotypes from both past and present, Yang illustrates the harmful nature of judgement and expectation. Yang brings a struggle which is often internalized t0 the surface, out in the open for everyone to see.

The character of Chin-Kee, American Born Chinese, 2006 

Because of the graphic novel format, is allows teenagers who may not be confident in their reading abilities to explore complex themes and enjoy a sophisticated narrative. The nature of the story makes it best suited to high school students, as they will have their own experiences of school, fitting in, and stereotype to connect with. The three tales come together explicitly at the end of the story, so even if the metaphor of the Monkey King is not directly seen in Jin Wang and Danny’s stories the meaning comes through. This is definitely not a comic for children, but it might be the right fit for that mature middle school student in your life. The graphic novel form make it accessible for teens to talk about literature, and allows them to feel confident in their ability to do so.

The Eisner Awards are Oscar’s of the comic and graphic novel world, and it is no surprise that in 2007 American Born Chinese won the coveted prize for Best Graphic Album. This novel has been heavily praised for its sophistication and for opening doors for young people to talk about tough issues and literary themes. But if nothing else, this novel should make you feel. It should make you feel uncomfortable at the racism the characters have to deal with. It should make you feel compassion for Jin Wang, who wishes he could just change everything about himself to fit in. It should make you feel joy at the transformation the characters undergo, and the journey they take. And above all else, it should make you feel reflective of your own identity as a person and embrace who you are.

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