American-Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

  • Author: Gene Luen Yang
  • Reading Level: Young Adult
  • Paperback: 233 pages
  • Publisher: First Second; First Edition edition (September 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781596431522
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596431522

Harro Amellica!

By Stig Tornes

American Born Chinese is by no means an unknown book. You can find reviews and articles about it on the Internet, and it has received a great deal of attention in America. It has even won a few awards. But news hasn’t reached Norway yet, despite the fact that is has been newly translated. I hadn’t heard of it until recently. Have you?

The reason I chose to write a book review about American Born Chinese was because of its brilliant depiction of cultural and racial hybrid identity in America. Hybrid identity is very prevalent in multicultural literature, and Yang tackles this subject with grace. In my interpretation of American Born Chinese, I will therefore focus on the ways in which he portrays both the aspects of being American and Chinese.

The most apparent feature of American Born Chinese is the way it has been divided into three allegedly separate stories. Each story represents itself, but they are linked by content and theme in other ways. They join up in an interesting way at the end (but I won’t spoil that here), as you will see when you read the book yourself. What I can say is that this book represents a cross of institutionalized categories of identity into a hybrid identity. This again is represented in the stories and characters of the book, by their merging and then re-emerging of a new position of cross cultural communication.

Another feature of this book worth mentioning is that it’s a graphic novel. I think that the graphic novel is a fantastic way to communicate different themes and topics, and in doing so (with pictures), whole new meanings can open up.

Yet another feature is the novel’s link to hybrid identity. I would argue that American Born Chinese is a story of hybrid identities in practice. What I mean is that the characters display traits associated with hybrid identities: both cultural and racial. The characters are, in their new context, separating themselves from existing practices by contact with new ones, and recombining them in new forms and practices.

The first story is about The Monkey King who wants to be recognized as a true ruler, but he isn’t, because of his lack of shoes. This seems to represent his uncivilized nature, and by pressure he sets out to be someone he’s not: someone with shoes.

The second story is about Jin Wang, a Chinese boy growing up in a white suburb. He is a second-generation immigrant struggling with two cultures. Between these two, the story depicts the making of Jin Wang’s best friend and Wang falling in love with a white girl.

The third story is about cousin Chin Kee, or Danny, who is visited by his cousin Chin Kee. Danny is an American boy, who tries to be an ordinary white kid by doing normal “American” stuff. However, he is constantly interrupted by his irritating and stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin Kee. How Danny can be America while Chin Kee is Chinese, and yet they both remain related, is an interesting device that unfolds itself at the end of the story.

I think the most interesting of all the stories is the one about the Monkey King. This is because it reaches to Chinese culture in an intelligent way. The Monkey King is taken from an old Chinese story going back to the sixteenth century called The Journey to the West. In China, this character has transcended its origin and entered into popular culture, and is now a common figure in the modern Chinese consciousness of artifacts like t-shirts, mugs and movies. Yang uses this story or figure in a very clever way, to transcend to yet another level of understanding, bringing the Monkey King into an eastern/western dichotomy: a communication of sorts, of different identities. Also, there seems to be a kind of western literary canonical connection in the narrative tool of the Monkey King: the myth and tradition of the old, surfacing within the new literature, disseminating new vistas of knowledge. In all its simplicity there is great depth in the story of the Monkey King. The story itself has a hybrid identity in that it communicates between two spaces of identity: the Chinese and the American. But in a way that makes it complicated, because the American culture seems at times indifferent to the Chinese. Jin Wang, the Monkey King and Danny all share this space between, and trying to be something they’re not. In the end though, there comes together a greater knowledge and understanding of this dichotomy between cultures, and they are all the more lucky for it.

So, we are left with the idea of everybody wanting to be something or someone else. It is hard to acknowledge your origin when  another culture looks upon it as something different (inferior) and not worthy of equal values (see frames above). Yet the author, Gene Luen Yang, manages to communicate beyond the negative by the production of this graphic novel, and in this he tells us a story of identities trying to communicate in both successful and unsuccessful ways. In the end they see, or we see, value in the position of the hybrid character: the recombination of new forms and practices.

If there are any weaknesses in the story, I leave it to you to find them, and in doing so, maybe you’ll see that even in weaknesses there are strengths. In the words of the Monkey King: “Now that I’ve revealed my true form, perhaps it is time to reveal yours…”

All images taken from American Born Chinese.

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