guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006); $16.95 paper.

By Taylor Nelms and Eva Yonas

The last page of Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel American Born Chinese offers up a familiar image: a single panel exactly capturing the now infamous web video of two Asian teenagers in Rockets jerseys lip-synching to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”—only with two of his main characters in the place of the original performers. These boys, crooning comically through the internet and into Yang’s novel, provide a present-day manifestation of a long tradition of Asian caricatures, like Connie in Terry and the Pirates or Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movie series. Rather than simply rejecting cultural representations like this web fad, Yang embraces them, treating them as complements to traditional Chinese folklore or the unique experiences of growing up Chinese in America. He grapples prominently with this mixed heritage and creates a brilliant modern allegory of Chinese-American hyphenated identity.

The novel unfolds in three parts: a modern retelling of the Chinese myth of the Monkey King; the faux-sitcom “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”; and the story of young Jin Wang as he struggles with his emergent Chinese-American identity. Yang alternates between these parallel narrative strands, playing them off of each other, before finally folding them into one another in an unexpected climax.

Yang begins his novel with the tale of the Monkey King, the story of a monkey kung-fu master with the body of a man who must, after being trapped under a mountain for five hundred years, relinquish his pride and reassess his true identity in order to find his place among the divine. The story, at least at first, is in many ways conventional mythology, filled with fantastical creatures living in a time-out-of-time. Yang’s command of the customary story-telling techniques of oral tradition—repetition, parallelism, and the standard mythological journey—feels natural and the tale’s didactic design is charitably unpretentious. His inspired take on the myth of the Monkey King combines the traditionally Buddhist tale of excessive pride with his own colloquial dialogue (“I don’t care who you say you are, old man. I can still take you.”) and Christian undertones (the Monkey King travels west with a monk and two other companions to greet what appears to be a baby Jesus). In this way, Yang transforms a story familiar to most, if not all, Chinese into one with new meaning for Chinese-Americans.

In the second plot-line, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Danny is disgusted by his visiting Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, a quintessential, l-and-r-switching, cat-eating Asian cliché. Here, Yang’s presentation perfectly mirrors the structure of the American television sit-com, complete with establishing shots, slapstick humor, and a familiar narrative arc. Yang puts Chin-Kee, and the stereotypes he represents, on display in order to confront and diffuse their social power, revealing them as ultimately superficial expressions of Chinese-American identity. At one point, Danny finds Chin-Kee in the school library in the midst of a performance reminiscent of the one-time American Idol hopeful William Hung. The image of Hung (or Chin-Kee) singing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” should be an offensive one, but Yang doesn’t shy away from these sometimes painful stereotypes. Instead, he plays with them, combining some, exaggerating others, and making all of them his own.

In the third of his narrative strands, Yang offers the story of Jin Wang, a fresh interpretation of the quotidian trials of being American-born Chinese. When Jin first enrolls in a suburban elementary school (appropriately named Mayflower), he is immediately ostracized by his peers. He grows up with only one friend, Wei-Chen, a fellow outcast from Taiwan. While the stories of the Monkey King and Chin-Kee have recognizable narrative models in traditional Chinese folklore and modern American culture, respectively, the storyline that follows Jin has no obvious precedent. It becomes clear that Yang is after something more than a retelling of invented personas. He is also prividing an honest representation of American-born Chinese identity.

Jin must negotiate a path between these two expressions of Chinese heritage—the folkloric representation of Chinese culture and the pop culture stereotype—and come to terms with this mixed identity. Like the hybrid heritage of the Monkey King—at once monkey, human, deity, Buddhist, Christian, Chinese, and now shaded with the undertones of American culture—Jin, and indeed all American-born Chinese, must fashion a unique selfhood from the disparate, sometimes hurtful, but often personally meaningful pieces of Chinese-American identity.

Yang’s masterful visual artistry is deceptively simple. Like his writing, it is superficially bound by convention and is thus easily accessible. He utilizes both splash pages and rectilinear panels that are the obvious standards of the comic form. He transforms these conventions, however, in a variety of ways: pushing characters physically through the boundaries of panels, switching from solid color blocks to blurred painterly outlines, introducing diagonal gutters at violent moments, and relying on a spectrum of near-primary colors (almost red, not quite green, etc.). His pacing is especially efficient, and Yang is equally adept at framing a staccato series of Chin-Kee’s increasingly frustrating antics or an extended meditation in which Jin contemplates the power of curly blonde hair.

Yang separates each chapter and marks each page with red seals, imitations of those found on classic Asian painting. Originally, these were meant to indicate authorship and ownership, and here these traditional Chinese images depict the main character (the author and owner) of each strand. The book’s final image of Jin and Wei-Chen in the midst of their boy-band performance is a modern interpretation of these square stamps—a symbolic statement about the provenance and purpose of
American Born Chinese: this book is by and for all Chinese-Americans.

The difference between Jin and Wei-Chen singing “I Want It That Way” on the final page and the earlier scene of Chin-Kee’s Hung-inspired performance in the school library is that, by the end of the novel, there is a history to accompany Jin and Wei-Chen’s performance. Like all essentializations of the Oriental “Other,” Chin-Kee comes to us without context; he is an exotic and comical stranger in white America. Jin and Wei-Chen, on the other hand, are not strange Asian kids poorly lip-synching to an English pop song, but fully realized Chinese-American individuals, endeared to us by Yang’s powerful storytelling. The moral of his allegory—one that embraces the full history of Chinese-American identity—rings true for all Americans. When we see Jin with his eyes shut and mouth open in the final frame, imploring the camera to “want it that way,” we see his story.

American Born Chinese has recently garnered considerable attention as a nominee for the National Book Award. Although nominated in the children’s literature category, Yang’s themes of alienation and cultural hybridity speak to a universal audience. His nomination is a major feat for a comic artist, and indeed, a well-deserved one. Yang’s novel stands as a celebration of Chinese-American identity and as a testament to the struggle of Chinese-Americans to find acceptance not only within majority American culture, but within themselves as well.