Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: "American Born Chinese," by Gene Luen Yang

This is actually the second time I've read this book, which should tell you something about how much I like it.

Honestly, this is one of the finest graphic novels I've read. The story is funny and engaging, the art is simple and clean, and the blending of Chinese folklore, modern-day high school drama, and racial politics is deft and precise. Nothing feel arbitrary or out of place. In fact, since it's my second reading, I'm able to look at little details in a new light, and realize that the author was dropping little clues throughout the book. Nothing that could possibly give away the ending; just little things that take on new meaning on the second read-through.

The narrative consists of three seemingly-separate threads:

1) the story of the Monkey King, one of the most-beloved heroes of Chinese folklore;
2) the story of Jin Wang, an American-born Chinese boy who moves to a new, largely Asian-free school; and
3) a purposely-painful sitcom about a boy named Danny, tormented by the annual visits of his unbearably Fresh-Off the Boat cousin, Chin-Kee.

Being a white, upper-middle class American male, it's sometimes difficult for me to really understand what it's like to be seen as an outsider. That said, Mr. Yang's book does an excellent job of conveying that sense of other-ness. Mostly this comes in the form of the seemingly random and arbitrary taunts which Jin Wang and his other Asian classmates receive from white students.

Jock #1: "Hey, I chink it's getting a little nippy out here."
Jock #2: "You're right! I'm gettin' gook bumps!"

It's moments like these, when Jin Wang's classmates gang up on him without any provocation, which make him so powerfully appealing to the reader. It makes you truly understand how the dual pressures of assimilation and rejection combine forces to tear apart the young man's psyche. He wants to be accepted, but he wants to be left alone. he tries his best to act white, but no matter what he does, his otherness is always in the spotlight. He's embarrassed by who he is.

If you're looking for a book that can powerfully and concisely explain to you the difficulties involved in growing up Asian-American, then I strongly recommend this book.


I hadn't realized this the first time (I'm embarrassed to say), but this is a very Christian book. It wasn't until I read on the back flap that the author "teaches computer science at a Roman Catholic high school" that everything fell into place.

I'd noticed a few hints of Christian imagery here and there (Wong Lai-Tsao and the Monkey King following a star on their journey; the adoration of the infant Buddha, etc.), but I figured it was just part of the original myth. And it may well be. But that doesn't stop it from resonating with Christin themes.

The name of the principal deity of Chinese folklore, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, is here translated as "He Who Is", an obvious allusion to Yahweh, whose name means roughly the same in Hebrew.

The Monkey King eventually gains the title of "Heavenly Emissary". In the later chapters, his abilities and puposes are similar to those of a guardian angel, which is highly appropriate, since our word "angel" comes from the Latin angelus, which means "messenger" or "emissary". (Coincidence? I think not.)

You can find plenty more examples of Christian influence in this book, if you look for it, but Yang never beats us over the head with it. Yang allows the reader to draw their own parallels between the story of the Monkey King and the biographies of any number of Christian saints.


  1. Very nice, although I feel like you got on the Christian rant track and then didn't get off it for a ending that comes back to the beginning. Unless of course that was your aim, then spot on!

    How often DO you read books a second time? Because that's the only reason I can think of to actually own books if you're going to buy them...and I don't know about you, but I re-read things CONSTANTLY.

  2. I didn't want to make the Christian bit a part of the main article, so that those who didn't want spoilers could avoid them.

    It was supposed to be more of a post-script than a rant.

    I do reread books, I just don't do it as often as I feel I should.