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Issue #133 - September 2006

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More than Meets the Physical Eye

By Peter Wong

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese, mixes three distinctly different story-telling genres and various pop and trash culture touchstones to offer a refreshing take on the struggle to find a dignified place in the world.

A loose re-telling of the Monkey King myth represents the outright fantasy strand. The self-proclaimed deity of Flower-Fruit Mountain invites himself to a wonderful dinner party in Heaven. But when his attempted entrance leads to serious public humiliation the Monkey King winds up punching out all the dinner guests.

The shame of that humiliation leads the simian ruler to take steps to transcend his monkey status. One of these steps, the development of great martial arts skills, comes in handy when the gods of Heaven pronounce a death sentence on the Monkey King for violently disrupting the dinner party. But things soon get out of hand when the transformed Monkey King continually punches out any god mocking his claim to be their equal. In desperation, the heavenly gods appeal to supreme god Tze-Yo-Tzuh to intervene. Can the Maker of All Things give the errant monkey a serious reality check?

Next, there’s a slice of life storyline about Jin Wang. The schoolboy’s family has moved to an all white California suburb to obtain a house and better educational opportunities for their son. Jin soon finds his major problem at the school is finding real friends who don’t think he’s from China or don’t believe he’s never eaten a dog. Taiwanese transfer student Wei-Chen becomes that friend thanks to a shared love of Transformer robots. Yet that friendship is tainted by cultural differences. Jin’s budding crush on white fellow student Amelia helps him dream of a bright loving future. But it doesn’t prepare him for the emotional betrayal that follows.

The final storyline is the "sitcom" "Everyone Ruvs Chin-kee." High school student Danny finds the accoutrements of his school social life terminally endangered by cousin Chin-kee’s annual visit. Danny is expected to take his Chinese cousin to school with him. Yet Chin-kee has beaver-like front teeth, speaks in a way that mixes his l’s and r’s like tumbling dice, and eats such alleged Chinese delicacies as crispy fried cat gizzards with noodles. The chaperoning of Chin-kee causes Danny’s fellow students to ridicule the American boy and start detecting a negative family resemblance between the two high school students.

These three disparate storylines do eventually merge in a surprising but logical manner. Sharp-eyed readers will grasp the thematic connection among the three stories. But they’re likely to miss the hints Yang drops about the plot connections.

Chinese Herbalist’s Wife: It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.

All three of American Born Chinese’s storylines deal with various aspects of social transformation and the price of emotional forfeiture. The Monkey King changes into a bully who earns only the fear of Heaven’s gods. Jin’s desire to avoid social isolation leads him to continually fear reminders of his Chinese background. Chin-kee’s unwillingness to conceal his "Chinese identity" makes him an object of ridicule.

Pro-assimilation advocates regularly put the onus on non-white Americans and immigrants to find ways to fit into American mainstream society. But what happens when so-called mainstream society also erects social toll roads whose entrance fee is the surrender of one’s individuality? Yang’s graphic novel considers this uncomfortable question and offers an emotionally true if unsentimental answer.

Of the three storylines in American Born Chinese, the Jin Wang segment turns out to be the strongest one. It continually manages to maintain a balance of emotional seesawing with visual élan. These qualities are best displayed in the sequence where Jin ultimately works up the nerve to ask Melanie out on a date, which ends with a wonderful final image which could only be done in comics. The depiction of casual racism feels true and honest, even when the reader doesn’t know that the racial slurs mentioned in the book are ones the author frequently heard while growing up. So skillfully and thoroughly is this segment’s emotional groundwork laid that Yang doesn’t need captions to explain why Jin lies to Wei-Chen at their first meeting.

This assessment does not mean the other segments have nothing to offer. The slightly irreverent re-telling of the Monkey King story still manages to convey the core of the ancient tale without fossilizing its relevance. The Christianity spin in Yang’s account is not apparent to those not well versed in the Bible. The Danny and Chin-kee segment reminds the reader anti-Chinese slurs still remain part of American society, whether one speaks of urine-colored skin or the "popularity" of William Hung.

In the end, American Born Chinese uses fantasy of various stripes to look at the clash between gaining social acceptance and preserving personal identity. That it does so without resorting to hysteria or over-statement (and yes, that includes the Chin-kee segment) makes Yang’s book a long-needed read.

American Born Chinese - Gene Luen Yang - First Second Books - graphic novel

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
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