American Born Chinese is a graphic novel comprised of three interrelated stories: an American-born Chinese boy who tries to fit in at his school, the legendary Monkey King, and an American boy who is extremely embarrassed by his visiting cousin who fits into the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype. The stories come together at the end in slightly bizarre way.
Anybody who’s born in Asia region or has Chinese heritage would know the story of the Monkey King, since it’s one of the oldest and the most popular Chinese literature that ever was. I grew up with countless variations of the story retelling and derivation: movies, tv series, manga, anime, illustrated books, you name it. So I would be interested to know if anyone outside the culture ever heard of the story. I can’t remember a time when I lived without the Monkey King, so I just assume that everybody in the world must know about it! Well, do you? If you’d like to read more about the origin, check out the wiki page of Journey to the West, which is probably a good introduction to the story. Or you can read Yang’s reasoning behind all three stories, which also includes some history of the Monkey King.
Out of the three stories, I enjoyed the Chinese cousin Chin-Kee the least. It’s too over the top with eating cat gizzards and peeing in a coke can for someone to drink. He’s disgusting, annoying, and frankly, almost insulting to Chinese people. I’m not sure if the story’s inclusion is really necessary and I wondered a bit why Yang put it in. The conclusion at the end of the book didn’t convince me. I read Yang’s story of the origin of the character (at the very end) and I got to understand in some way. He said,
“In order for us to defeat our enemy, he must first be made visible.”
I can’t ask for more. It’s the perfect way to explain his decision and I respect it.
The Monkey King story is pretty close to the original one and I do think I could appreciate it more having been so familiar with the original story. But inevitably, I enjoyed most the good old story of Asian kids wanting to fit into dominantly white society. Along with him, there’s a Japanese girl and another boy from Taiwan in school. It’s always interesting point that the ignorant always group all the Asians together like a big pot of slanted eyes people.
While the graphic novel is fiction, it’s not hard to imagine that parts of it are biographical. Yang was born in 1973, and I imagine there were probably few Asians in school in those days. I’m not sure about American school these days, but in Australia I do see plenty Asian high school kids all over the place. So the difficulty to fit in may not be as high as, say, 20-30 years ago.
One of my favorite scene is the one where the two Chinese friends meet at some cafe drinking bubble tea. Bubble tea! For you who don’t know, it’s Taiwanese drink that’s really popular in East Asia and overseas. It usually comprises of milk tea and black tapioca balls in bite size. I happen to like it as well, and there were a lot of times that I hung out with my Asian friends drinking bubble tea — in Australia, Canada, USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. Bubble tea is ubiquitous! It brought me fond memories, just thought I share. It’s such a perfect ending to the book, as for me, it shows acceptance of who you are.
It’s kinda weird that I probably spent more time compiling this review than reading the book (it’s really short). But I guess it’s the type of book that could invoke all sorts of reaction and feeling. And the more I dwell on it the more I appreciate the uniqueness of this book. Who has ever produced anything like it before? The rawness of it really hits you on the head.
American Born Chinese is published by First Second, whose collection looks absolutely amazing. I’m most interested in reading Kampung Boy by Lat (kampung means village in Malaysian and Indonesian) and The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (Korean author). Gorgeous covers!
2006, 240 pp
2007 Michael L. Printz Award (First graphic novel ever to win. Won over the Book Thief by Markus Zusak in that year.)
2007 Eisner Award Best Graphic Album – New
Finalist for 2006 National Book Award – Young People’s Literature (First graphic novel ever to be nominated)
Book Awards III (book #5), Dewey’s Book (book #12), Graphic Novels (book #17), China Challenge (book #1) — Not sure if this book counts, since half of it is set overseas, not China, but the Monkey King story? Surely it counts!
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