American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
New York: First Second Books, 2006
This charming graphic novel is deceptively simple. On the surface it is three intertwining tales: one about a folkloric monkey king, the second a Chinese boy who longs to fit in, and the third a white teenager painfully embarrassed by his visiting Chinese cousin. While all three stories are involving, Yang's real accomplishment is in his discussion of race and identity. Using a technique unique and integral to comics, Yang employs disturbing stereotypes to confront and subvert those very stereotypes which he employs.
For instance, Danny's cousin who visits him yearly is a Chinese boy named Chin-kee (does that name hit ya over the head or what?). Chin-kee speaks in an overblown accent, wears stereotypically traditional clothing, and his luggage consists of stacked Chinese take-out boxes. He laughs uncontrollably, claps wildly, and the first words out of his mouth are "Herro Amellica!!!" While one might be tempted to cringe, Yang uses the stereotypes to confront the audience's own potential prejudices and as a gateway to a touching story of acceptance.
Similarly, the story of Jin (the boy who so desperately wants to fit in) confronts a number of the same stereotypes and throws in the added pressure to assimilate. When Jin develops a crush on the All-American girl next door he devises a simple plan to appear more westernized. He transforms his hair from its fine natural straightness to a curly, chili-bowl concoction. The result: he's considered the "Chinese kid with the afro." So much for the plan.
And certainly not to be forgotten is the framework story of the Monkey King. Drawing on Chinese folklore, the story of the Monkey King is also one of cultural critique and dripping with identity politics as the Monkey King is rejected by the gods and thus sets out to become bigger, better, faster, and more powerful than those around him. Unfortunately all of that effort results in his being stuck under a mountain of rocks for 500 years. Luckily, many lessons can be learned in that amount of time, and they certainly pay off for the Monkey King.
Revealing much more about the details and nuances of this novel would certainly ruin what proves to be clever interweaving of plots and a fantastic twist. So, with that in mind, I highly recommend that you grab a copy. It's a quick, engaging, worthwhile read.