5 Questions: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

1. If you are not an experienced reader of graphic novels, describe/discuss your reading of American Born Chinese. Was it difficult to get used to reading a story in this format? Did you enjoy the experience?

American Born Chinese was my first graphic novel.  After hearing Gene Yang’s lecture at UTK I was intrigued and ran out and bought a copy.  I grew up reading Japanese manga and so the format/layout is not new.  I did, however, come into the experience as a skeptic…graphic novels might be fun to read, but surely, they wouldn’t be considered “literature”, right?  I was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying ABC, but at the same time, having a hard time understanding it during my first read-through.  How could that be, since graphic novels in my mind were supposed to be less literary and easier to read?  Subsequent readings had me paying more attention to the details in the illustrations and the interplay between the text and the drawings.  I loved Yang’s drawing style and the little inside jokes he hides within the panels.  I have since then tried a few other graphic novels and my opinion on graphic novels have definitely shifted!  I can see, as Yang discussed on “Comics in Education?!”, that this strong emphasis on visuals can be great for not only visual learners, but could benefit learners in general (Sones’ 1944 study showed that children given information presented in comic form had scored higher than children who were given the same information in text form), and graphic novels could motivate reluctant and ESL readers as well.

2. Teenagers often struggle with identity in its many shapes and forms—cultural, sexual, personal, etc. Please comment of the theme of identity and its importance to American Born Chinese.

I believe one of the biggest struggles for immigrants is with identity.  Yang explores this in American Born Chinese with great care, using three seemingly separate storylines (one with the Monkey King, one with Jin, and one with Danny and his cousin Chin-kee).  The Monkey King laments the fact that, even though he has mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, he is still seen as a monkey.  Even though Jin was born in the United States, he is still identified as “Chinese” and teased because of his heritage.  And it didn’t matter what that heritage is, he is automatically grouped together with Suzy (Japanese) and Wei Chen (Taiwanese).  Danny, a typical American boy, is plagued by his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee.  We eventually find out that Jin and Danny were the same person, which to me, is a brilliant treatment of the theme and shows that Yang truly understand the dilemma immigrants go through.  Immigrants — 1st-, 2nd-, even 3rd-generation — are first and foremost identified/judged by the color of their skin (this is true in Jin’s case).  People will ask my kids where they are from, and when they would reply “Michigan”, people would say, “But where are you from, originally?”  This would confuse them to no ends, understandably!   As Danny’s storyline show, we can try to blend in as much as we can, playing varsity sports and dying our hair blond, but the ugly stereotypes (as personified by Chin-kee) will always follow us…there’s no escaping them.

The relationship between Jin and Wei-Chen is interesting to me, since I remember a time where I was more of a FOB than an ABC, wanting and longing to become an ABC (but hating them at the same time for “betraying” or looking down at their heritage).  There’s a period where I was somewhere in the middle — having friends in both camps — and then when I shifted to more the ABC side, I remember wanting to distance myself from the FOBs — because they were often the target of teasing and racial slurs — but at the same time, wanting what they have (a stronger identity within their heritage).  Even today, as an Taiwanese-Canadian/American living down south, I (and my American-born family) struggle with this search for identity on a daily basis.

3. Racism also plays a major role in the overall theme of American Born Chinese. For me, Yang handles this troubling theme with genius. Please write a thoughtful paragraph about the theme of coping with racism in this novel.

Yang does a brilliant job shedding light on the issue of racism and how people cope with it.  Chin-kee’s character personifies every stereotype that is associated with a Chinese person — the Chinese take-out boxes, the buck teeth, the accent (the interchange of l’s and r’s), being loud, the grammar (no third-person inflections), being smart, slanted eyes, etc. — and this is something one can’t shed, no matter how Americanized one can appear to be (e.g. Danny, though he appears “white”, always has Chin-kee around to possibly mess up his life).  The only way to cope, I believe, is to figure out and make peace with your true identity, to embrace it, as Jin/Danny and the Monkey King realize in the book. Once you know who you are (and I believe we are all made up of a bunch of different parts) and what you are not, then the racial slurs/stereotypes will have lost their power to hurt.  Instead, they become something we can laugh about and defeat, as Danny did on p. 212.

4. Yang delicately balances the difficult themes of coming of age, the search for identity, and coping with racism with humor. Please locate and list five panels (with the page number) which you personally find humorous. Of these five panels, which is your favorite? Why?

  • p. 30/36, where Jin and Wei-Chen are being introduced.  This is probably my favorite since, as a Taiwanese-American family, first meetings and introductions can often be awkward and confusing.  I am an immigrant like Wei-Chen, and people, whether for lack of knowledge or just convenience, usually assume I’m from China.  My husband and daughters, all born in Michigan, frequently experience what Jin experiences — because they look Asian, they are also automatically assumed to be from China.  If they say they are from Michigan people often rephrase their question, “But where are you originally from?”  Either we repeat themselves and receive blank stares, or we resort to lengthy explanations which can end in humorous confusion as well: “We are actually not Chinese…our families are from Taiwan” is always followed by an enthusiastic “Ohhh, we just love Thai food!”

  • p. 48, where we are first introduced to Chin-kee.  I loved Yang’s use of detail — his luggage are Chinese take-out boxes.  This is such an Americanized stereotype; if you travel to China, HK, or Taiwan, you probably would have a hard time finding those kind of take-out boxes.  The drawing of Chin-kee and the representation of a stereotypical Chinese accent is on the spot too.  I don’t know if this is Yang’s intent, but to me it pokes fun at the people who would put on these accents.

  • p. 111-113, where Chin-kee answers every question correctly.  Here’s Yang addresses another stereotype — that all Asians are super smart — with humor.  But there is a rather dark side to that truth.  Growing up, so much of our self-worth is based on how smart we are and how many A’s we can get, and that’s all adults ever talk about or seem to care about.  It’s interesting what that does to children/teens.  Those who do excel in school work live under constant pressure; those who do not excel constantly feel like failures.

  • p. 148-149, where the Monkey King watches Wong Lai-Tsao being speared and skewered and barbequed by demons and finally accepts his true identity and helps.  It’s funny that he waits this long, and that during all of this Wong Lai-Tsao still has the energy to philosophize/lecture the Monkey King.

  • p. 226, where Jin tries to order off the Chinese menu and points to “Cash Only”, thinking it’s a dish.  On the one hand, Jin was born and raised in America, so he shouldn’t be expected to know the language, and yet because he looks Chinese, the waitress automatically identifies him as such and assumes he would.  I can see this happening with my daughters, who can’t speak or read Chinese.  As the only person who can speak Mandarin fluently in my family, I am always urged to teach my American-born daughters the language.  I struggle with it.  On the one hand, they shouldn’t be expected to, but on the other, I look at my brother’s kids who do and I think maybe I’ve failed somehow by not teaching them.

5. Identifying the audience and determining age appropriateness are two difficult tasks when building a graphic novel collection for teens. Who do you think the audience (the teens most likely to read the book) for American Born Chinese is? What age group do you think the book is most appropriate for?

I think anyone who’s ever experienced an identity crisis or been a target of racism or other forms of teasing based on their appearance or background, anyone who’s ever gone through the immigration experience, whether through their parents or themselves, would appreciate this book.  Chinese-Americans would enjoy the retelling of Monkey King, a classic that every child has grown up with, and other inside jokes as well (Wei-Chen’s “Robo-Happy” shirt is a great detail…Chinese/Taiwanese people love wearing shirts with English on them, even if they don’t make any sense).  Yang’s use of three interconnected characters, and especially his use of Chin-kee, really brings to light the ugly stereotypes that so many people carelessly throw around and their ill-effects.  That said, while I think Chin-kee might be a humorous way to talk about such hard topics as racism, I am concerned that younger readers might misunderstand Yang’s purpose altogether, and think it’s okay to use those stereotypes, accents, etc. (especially since a Chinese author is doing it himself, in a published book!).  (The three interconnected stories might pose some confusion to younger students as well.)  Even though the book has a low reading level (AR 3.3; Scholastic 5, according to CLCD), I would  recommend this book to middle-schoolers and up.  (Amazon recommends this book for 12 and up; CLCD has age recommendations ranging from 12-, 13-, 15- and up, depending on the reviewer).

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