Summary: Jin Wang starts at a new school where he’s the only Chinese-American student. When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn’t want to be associated with an FOB like him. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he’s in love with an all-American girl. Danny is an all-American boy: great at basketball, popular with the girls. But his obnoxious Chinese cousin Chin-Kee’s annual visit is such a disaster that it ruins Danny’s reputation at school, leaving him with no choice but to transfer somewhere he can start all over again. The Monkey King has lived for thousands of years and mastered the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines. He’s ready to join the ranks of the immortal gods in heaven. But there’s no place in heaven for a monkey. Each of these characters cannot help himself alone, but how can they possibly help each other? They’re going to have to find a way—if they want fix the disasters their lives have become.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang 8.25
“It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
Since I was enjoying ‘Level Up‘, I decided to request some of Gene Luen Yang’s other books. Thankfully, the inside cover highlighted a few of his most notable works; its various quotes made them seem indispensable.
The first one I received was ‘The Eternal Smile‘. I preferred it to ‘Level Up’; it held within its page moments of true cleverness. I then got his multiple award-winning ‘American Born Chinese’, Yang’s most recognized work thus far.
Well, it’s even more clever than ‘The Eternal Smile’.
‘American Born Chinese’ is inspired by experiences that Yang has had growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American. It’s not autobiographical, per se, but it uses key aspects of his life to flesh out his characters and the situations.
There are three stories that alternate throughout the book:
1) The fable of the Monkey King, who rejects being discriminated against for being a monkey and fights to be respected as a sage – that is, until he is confronted by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the Creator.
2) The story of Jin Wang, a young American boy born of immigrant parents, who endures prejudice and bullying at school – to the point of rejecting his Asian identity (amongst other things).
3 ) The satirical tale of Danny, a blonde Caucasian who is regularly visited by his cousin Chin-Kee, a cartoon stereotype based on the racist imagery found in North American media over a century ago. Chin-Kee is an utter embarrassment to him: he is outrageously over-the-top and every panel he’s in is accompanied by a laugh-track or clapping – as though in a sitcom.
What makes ‘American Born Chinese’ superb is not just that it tackles prejudice in three different ways, it’s that Yang found a way to bring his three stories together in the most original of methods. I was rather impressed.
‘American Born Chinese’ brought to mind the story of a close friend of mine’s only son, who is of Indian heritage and has an Indian name, but decided to have it changed officially now that he’s an adult due to his own experiences.
I find this very sad because he has the most amazing-sounding name. However, I’m in no position to comment: I don’t know the scope of the embarrassment that he’s endured. It’s quite possible that it was all too much to handle.
I can relate to some degree: being a Francophone in a bilingual (but largely Anglophone), environment, I myself have had my name twisted and derided many times. I haven’t changed it, but I frequently use a diminutive for simplicity’s sake.
Such is the power of ignorance and mean-spiritedness.
In any case, Jin Wang’s story made me think of all this, and the stories of the Monkey King and Danny tied into it firmly. It makes me wonder what my friend’s son would think of this book, should he read it. It might even become a gift.
I’m not exactly sure if I’m on board with the moral of the story (or, at least, my interpretation of it), which is that one shouldn’t disown one’s origins – that we shouldn’t reshape ourselves into what we’d envision ourselves to be.
Firstly, I’m no great fan of customs. Blindly following customs is the exact same mindlessness that leads to prejudice. Long-held beliefs and practices always need to be reviewed and reassessed in consideration of new contexts and values.
Secondly, saying that one shouldn’t change who he/she is supposes that one is born in a predestined form – which is exactly what is suggested here. I don’t believe that one bit. Nature is not perfect; it makes mistakes.
Taking this belief to an extreme, then we shouldn’t allow any form of fashion, we shouldn’t colour our hair, wear make-up, work out, …etc. And that’s just silly. I believe that we should be free to improve ourselves and reshape ourselves.
Of course, perhaps the moral of the story is simply that we shouldn’t let prejudice and ignorance make us ashamed of who we are. That we shouldn’t change ourselves just to feel more accepted – thereby allowing others to change us.
Having said this, doesn’t prejudice also prevent us from changing? Just like we can be shamed into changing, can’t we also be shamed us into not changing – thereby preventing us from growing as individuals, from improving ourselves?
These questions are not explored enough in ‘American Born Chinese’, and I wish they were. These are difficult questions, and more clarity would have been nice. Because, let’s face it: sometimes you really do have to shed the old skin.
In my estimation, this isn’t really isn’t cut and dried matter.
In any case, ‘American Born Chinese’ is a terrific book: it reads well, has much to say, it’s intelligent and it looks superb. Somehow I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I did ‘The Eternal Smile’, but it absolutely deserves admiration.
Granted, Yang could have approached the issue from a few more angles, but he nonetheless broached a difficult subject with class and style. And that makes the book well-worth reading. And well-worth recommending.