Monday, July 28, 2008

An Asian in America

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

Rating: ****

Culture Shock: *** There are references to the Monkey King and Journey to the West.

Summary: A masterfully written tale told with humour about what it was like growing up Chinese in America.

In an early scene in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, young Jin Wang waits patiently for his mother while watching his aunt do accounting on an abacus. They strike up a conversation and she asks what he would like to be when he grows up. Jin answers “a Transformer” and holds up his toy robot as illustration. His aunt ominously tells him that he could become anything he wanted as long as he sold his soul.

Unbeknownst to young Jin, this innocent conversation would be pivotal to his understanding of himself and his place in Middle America. It also reminded me a lot of my own childhood which is why this simple and well-crafted graphic novel affected me so much. When I was a lot younger, I often wished to be like Jin’s toy robot – able to change myself at a moment’s notice and become someone else, anyone else, but who I was. And I was a skinny Asian kid most often the target of bullies. Being me was not a lot of fun most of the time. But this book isn't just about Asians. It is about any person who feels different or alienated. That experience crosses many bounderies of race and culture.

American Born Chinese tells three interlocking tales which initially look like they don't belong together. There is the folk tale of the legendary Monkey King and his battle to be accepted as an equal among gods. Then, there is the tale of Jin Wang, an ordinary Chinese kid in junior high school who is alienated for being Asian. Finally, there is the tale of Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee, the over the top Chinese stereotype who comes complete with his own sitcom laugh track. These tales eventually converge in ways you would never expect. The artwork is colourful but sparse and reminded me a bit of of Dilbert or Bone.

It is a masterfully written tale which, through lots of good natured humour (although much of the humour in Chin-Kee’s tale is cringe-worthy), comments on what it was like to grow up as a Chinese kid in white, suburban America (and Canada for that matter). For me, it almost felt like my inner-most thoughts come to life in comic-book imagery.

You can find out more about this and other of the author's graphic novels at Gene Yang's Blog.

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