Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poetry, Drama, Film, and Response: American Born Chinese

Bibliographic Data
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. ISBN 9781596431522.

Plot Summary
Yang takes three very different storylines and weaves them together seamlessly in this graphic novel. In the first storyline, the Monkey King, rejected by the other gods as 'just a monkey, wants to be recognized as "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven." In the second storyline, Jin Wang is uncomfortable beinig one of the 3 Asian students in his middle school. In the third storyline, Chin-Kee, a horribly overstereotyped Chinese caricature complete with laugh track, comes to visit his cousin Danny at his "Amellican" high school and proceeds to make Danny's life miserable.

Critical Analysis
In Gene Luen Yang's book, three Chinese characters display three very different aspects of being Chinese. In the first story about the Monkey King of Chinese legend, the Monkey King finds his own style of coping mechanisms when he's rejected by all the other deities, both major and minor. In the second story, Jin has to learn to cope with being Chinese in a large urban school where not even the teachers can say his name right. And in the third story Yang creates a character, Chin-Kee, who combines all the negative Chinese stereotypes known to man, into one single obnoxious charfacter.

Yang's illustrations for this story show a world filled with action, color, and movement. Even in a panel showing nothing but the monkey king sitting in the dark on his rock throne with a caption saying, "He stayed awake for the rest of the night thinking ways to get rid of it." we sense the monkey king's tension and anger in the very stillness he's shown in (20).

In the storyline featuring middle schooler Jin Wang, there's an ongoing joke about how none of the teachers can pronounce Chinese names. On Jin's first day of school, the teacher and Jin have this dialogue:
     T: (to class) Class, I'd like us all to give a warm Mayflower Elemtnary welcome to           your new friend and classmate Jing Jang!
     J: Jin Wang.
     T: Jin Wang!
               (next panel)
     T: He and his family recently moved to our neighborhood all the way from China!
     J: San Francisco.
     T: San Francisco! (30)

Two years later, another student arrives from China. Different grade, different classroom, different teacher, but the following scene once more takes place:
     T: (to class) Class, I'd like us all to give a big Mayflower welcome to your new
          friend and classmate Chei-Chen Chun!
     W: Wei-Chen Sun.
     T: Wei-Chei Sun!
               (next panel)
     T: He and his family recently moved to our neighborhood all the way from China!
     W: Taiwan.:
     T: Taiwan! (38)

Yang is showing us that prejudice, even it's casual and unintentional, never changes. Later, there's a scene where Jin has been observed out on a date with a Caucasian girl by a Caucasian boy. Interestingly, this same Caucasian boy was the one who defended Jin from some bullies on his first day in American school. But now, this boy turns out be prejudiced also. He approaches Jin at school the day after the date, and has the following conversation with Jin:
     Boy: Can I ask you a favor?
                    (next panel)
     Boy: Can you not ask Amelia out again?
     Jin: You - You like her?
                    (next panel)
     Boy: What?! No, No! She's like a sister. to me! We've known each other since,
             like preschool or something. No!
                    (next panel)
     Boy: It's just that she's a good friend and I want to make sure she makes
             good choices, you know? We're almost in high school. She has to start
             paying attention to who she hangs out with (179).

Is Yang telling us here that everybody is prejudiced to some degree, even if you are a nice person? It seems like it. But there are many kinds of prejudice. Closely related is being ashamed of who are, and this is the path that Yang pursues in diverging his three story lines into one. The monkey king learns to accept that he is a monkey. In turn, he comes to Earth in the shape of Chin-Kee to show Danny, who turns out to be Jin in high school, that there's nothing wrong with accepting who you are. In fact, by accepting who he is, Jin helps his friend, Wei-Chen Sun, accept who he is too. Wei-Chen Sun turns out to be the pivotal point of the three story lines, since he is, in reality, the monkey king's oldest son, sent to earth to serve humans, specifically Jin. Chin-Kee's yearly visits to his cousin Danny's house were actually the monkey king's annual checking in on his son. Danny reverts back to Jin, and Wei-Chen Sun learns to accept his role in life also.

Yang has written an amusing book on the surface, but when you dig down deep, the reader starts to find facets and depths to this book. Are we all truly prejudiced? Is prejudice somehting we can turn on and off, or is it something we need to learn to cope with the hard way, like Jin? And finally, prejudice can assume disguises, such as the boy in Jin's middle school, 'trying to help Amelia make the best choice for herself.' If something like this were ever said to me, how would I respond? Yang shows Jin's response to be total speechlessness.

The conversation continues after Jin is struck speechless.
     Boy: Aw, geez. Look, Jin. I'm sorry. That sounded way harsher than I meant it.
             to. I just don't know if you're right for her, okay? That's all.
               (next panel)
     Boy: No hard feelings?
     Jin: ...
     Jin: Yeah.
               (next panel)
     Boy: And you can do me the favor?
               (next panel)
     Jin: ...
     Jin: I guess.
               (next panel)
     Boy: Thanks, Man! I appreciate it!

And the boy strolls off, once more leaving Jin speechless. As Jin sees Amelia down the street, he walks past her without even looking at her (180-181).

Prejudice is a harsh weapon, and Yang shows us, through his words and illustrations, that even when the user doesn't intend to hurt, it still does -- sometimes even more than when somebody DOES intend their prejudice to hurt.

As a side note, my 18 year old son read this book, and he caught something I was unaware of. In the endspiece, Yang has placed a picture of Jin and Weng wearing basketbal shirts. My son informed me that this is an "in" joke among his age group, because there's a YouTube video showing two Asian boys wearing these exact same red shirts, singing a Backstreet Boys song. Even the background is the same as in the video!

Awards and Honors
Cybils , 2006; Winner Graphic Novels Ages 13 and Up United States.
James Cook Book Award, 2007; Honorable Book United States.
Michael L. Printz Award, 2007; Winner United States.
National Book Awards, 2006; Finalist Young People's Literature United States.
Northern California Book Award, 2007; Finalist Children's Literature United States.
Quill Awards, 2007; Nominee Young Adult/Teen United States.
Best Books for Young Adults, 2007; YALSA; United States.
Best Books of the Year, 2006; School Library Journal; United States.
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2007; Bank Street College of Education; Outstanding Merit; United States.
Books for Youth, 2006; Booklist Editor's Choice; United States.
Capitol Choices, 2007; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States.
Choices, 2007; Cooperative Children’s Book Center; United States.
Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2007; YALSA; United States.
Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth, 2007; Booklist; United States.
Top 10 Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2007; YALSA; United States.
Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, 2007; YALSA; United States.
Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2007; YALSA; United States.
White Ravens Award, 2007; International Youth Library; United States.

Review Excerpts
Jesse Karp (Booklist, Sep. 1, 2006 (Vol. 103, No. 1))
Each of the characters is flawed but familiar, and, in a clever postmodern twist, all share a deep, unforeseen connection. Yang helps the humor shine by using his art to exaggerate or contradict the words, creating a synthesis that marks an accomplished graphic storyteller. The stories have a simple, engaging sweep to them, but their weighty subjects--shame, racism, and friendship--receive thoughtful, powerful examination.

CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2007)
The Monkey King is tired of his second-class status. Adored by his own subjects, he is snubbed by human deities until he perfects his powers and literally beats those who would mock him into submission. Jin Wang is the only Chinese American student at his school. When Wei-Chen Sun arrives from Taiwan, Jin Wang thinks, “Something made me want to beat him up.” Blond-haired Danny’s life would be perfect were it not for his cousin, Chin-Kee, who embodies every offensive stereotype of the Chinese, from buck teeth and braided ponytail to mispronunciations (“Harro Amellica!”). Gene Luen Yang’s brilliant graphic novel moves back and forth between these three separate narrative strands, each one exploring issues of identity, belonging, humility, and friendship as the storylines develop. Yang’s narrative builds to an unforgettable and dazzling series of revelations as the three storylines surprisingly converge in a book that is eye-opening and provocative, pushing the boundaries of comfort for readers as it exposes racism from its most subtle to most overt.

Rosemary Knapp (Library Media Connection, January 2007)
In this graphic novel, three humorous and seemingly unrelated stories keep the reader's attention until they come together at the end. The first story concerns a Chinese-American boy trying to fit in. The second is a retelling of the Chinese fable of the monkey king… The third story involves a Chinese cousin who visits an American boy each year. The depiction of the cousin is so painfully stereotypical that you feel guilty laughing. In each story, the central character is unsatisfied with who he is and goes to great lengths to be someone else-with humorous results. The reader might be puzzled as to how the three stories are connected until the conclusion. It's a nice combination of a fable and contemporary stories to convey the wonderful lesson of accepting one's culture and identity with pride. A quick read, this title has engaging art, and at times, funny dialogue.

Book Hook
If you enjoyed this graphic novel, try some of Gene Luen Yang’s other graphic novels, like Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order (SLG Publishing, 2004) or The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (First Second, 2009), which he co-wrote with Derek Kirk Kim.

Online Connections
For more information on the Monkey King in Chinese mythology, click here.
To see the YouTube video referenced in this book, click here.


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