Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review: American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
New York: First Second Books, 2006
Graphic Novel

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.


  1. I was wondering if this was any good. Glad to know it's worth looking for.

    I picked up two graphic novels today at the library. Blankets by Craig Thompson, which I read about 30 pages of in the middle of the aisle and though intriguing, and Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson. I also got Alice Hoffman's new book Starlight Confessions. Hope I can get to them!

  2. It's soooo very good. So much better than I make it sound.

    My thesis director read and loved Blankets, and I haven't heard of Night Fisher! I'll have to check that out. And YAY Alice Hoffman! I need to pick up another one of hers. She's a comfort read for me.

  3. I dunno Andi, you make it sound pretty damned good, I think I'll have to pick up a copy. As Jerri Blank once said 'the buck teeth make me laugh'.

  4. Thanks, Dale! Enjoy! Lemme know if you give it a try.

  5. Added to my wishlist.

    I second the recommendation for Blankets - it's a great graphic novel. And have you read Persepolis or Fun Home yet?

  6. Lesley,

    Glad you added American Born Chinese to your wishlist. It is absolutely positively worth the time.

    And I have read (and enjoyed) Persepolis I and II. Haven't read Fun Home. Actually don't even know what that one is about. Must check it out!


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