Book Review: American Born Chinese

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Now it begins. Besides reading the couple books that I am reading for book club this summer, I am going to spend the next few weeks (at least) reading for the co-op classes I’m teaching this year. I have to be ready by August, and I already am supposed to have decided on most of my curriculum. As it stands, I will be teaching middle school/high school art (2D paper art is where I’m landing) and—drum roll—ninth grade-ish language arts, or “English.” Honestly, though I know I don’t exactly have time for it, it has to be done since I’m part of the co-op and I am unreasonably excited about teaching this particular class. I always thought I could teach college English, and high school is getting pretty close.

Therefore, I ordered a number of books over the past couple weeks. The first one that I picked up to read (partly because it would not take long to read) was the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. I want to introduce my kids to the medium of graphic novel (if they aren’t already fans) and present it as legitimate literature, but I don’t think it needs to fall into the regular novel reading schedule. Pretty sure that I’ll stick this one at the end of the mythology unit, which you’ll understand in just a second. (I may use Persepolis between short stories and poetry).

I hadn’t seen American Born Chinese around, but I found it on recommendation lists for about ninth grade. It is a pretty short graphic novel, at 233 pages. Okay, 233 doesn’t scream “short,” but since the drawings only take up a little more than half of each page, it does come across as brief. I read between things and finished it in two days. (Admittedly, I am not a good barometer for time it takes to read things, and I need to keep this in mind when writing the curriculum this year. You are welcome to remind me that I read about nineteen times faster than the average ninth grader.) The title—American Born Chinese—says quite a bit, but there are some elements that make it special. On the surface, it’s the story of Jin Wang, an American-born Chinese (go figure) boy who has just moved from a diverse city to a much less diverse area. The story starts with his parent’s immigration story and moves through elementary school, middle school, and eventually into adulthood. The main draw for this story is not really the one story, however. You quickly discover that this graphic novel is three stories, flipping between them as distinct chapters. The second is a version of the Chinese story of the Monkey King. The third is about a white boy named Danny whose inexplicably Chinese cousin comes to visit him once every year, causing turmoil with his overt Chinese-ness and his unapologetic embracing of stereotypes. (There’s more to say about that, but give me a paragraph to get to it.) The reader experiences these three stories as completely distinct though conceptually connected until the very end of the book. Most people like the way they eventually weave together so much that that’s the first thing mentioned in most reviews.

There are plenty of other things to be said for this book besides the interesting form. (And I do love it when a book takes different threads and weaves them together.) Let’s start simple: the illustrations. I agree with some others that the illustrations aren’t breath-taking but neither are they distracting. They’re solid and simple and they let the story come to the front. Yeah, I would like some visual acrobatics, but as someone with ADHD, this was the easiest graphic novel for me to read. Ever. Many people also like that the novel is completely in color, not black and white illustrations.

American really reminded me of New Kid. Perhaps meant for a kid a year or two older than New Kid, American has a lot of other obvious similarities. Theme, mostly. While New Kid is about what it’s like to be a new, Black kid in an elite school of mostly white kids, American is mainly about what it’s like to be Asian (and specifically Chinese) in a town of mostly white kids. The two main characters, Jin and Jordan, experience a whole lot of the same thing and either one of them would basically “teach” the same lessons in a class setting. They both experience bullying and make friends, they both are surrounded by a few other marginalized characters who go through similar things. They get stereotyped, have their names mispronounced, their culture made fun of, are undervalued or misunderstood by well-intentioned characters, etc. They have the same things to say about being a minority in America in the twenty-first century. It’s not especially flattering, America.

There are differences, though. Obviously, both would be worth a read simply because they are nuanced around the particular experience they represent: Black versus Chinese. African-American versus second-generation immigrant. American has more subtlety, I thought, but then uses the different stories to really one-two sucker punch the reader, occasionally. Let’s talk about this. Obviously, both books are about racism, systemic racism, and well-intentioned racism, as well as the inequalities and inconveniences of not being white in the USA. American sometimes gets in trouble because it really shoves the racism right in the face of the reader. You can’t read the book and not confront your own interactions with and thoughts about East Asians and immigrants from East Asia. I mean, the story line about Danny and his Chinese cousin is actually shockingly racist but is intentionally so in order to show us how Jin and others experience the world and also to just come out in the open about dangerous stereotypes in American history. Danny’s cousin’s name is Chin-Kee (say it aloud), he speaks in a ludicrous accent akin to old cinematic accents, he knows everything academic, eats cats, and even—sorry to ruin it for you—goes “pee-pee in [someone’s] Coke.” (Look it up if you don’t know the allusion to pop-culture kid chants from as late as the nineties. Hopefully, not still now. Maybe still now.) Some readers walk away disgusted, but most readers get it. Let me say, I was uncomfortable with it, even though Luen Yang is of Chinese descent. I was absolutely supposed to be uncomfortable. Does that make it okay? I think so, as long as it gets us to talk about it and to question ourselves and our society.

And there is another really interesting aspect of this book, one that I don’t see most reviewers talking about: religion. You think it’s all Chinese gods and goddesses and spirits for awhile, but there is a fascinating undercurrent of a Supreme Being, a One God, and also an allusion to Jesus and references to the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. I don’t know if this is Luen Yang’s beliefs emerging or not, but it is another conversation about immigrants, colonialism, etc., this time in the light of religion. It would also just make an interesting conversation about religion.

Does it sound like I loved this graphic novel? Well, I agree with many that the wrap-up was sudden, brief, and even confusing. (I had to re-read part of it.) I liked it and I found it thought-provoking. It was shocking, sometimes, both in “racist” content and in plot or form. I don’t think it would be valuable to hand to a kid without a discussion or ten, as it is possible it could engender the type of racism it is meant to expose. On the other hand, on a great day, it would expose and discourage systemic or undercurrent racism, especially relevant in a Covid Pandemic America. It’s worth a read and I’m pretty sure I’ll use it in the classroom this year.


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