Gene Luen Yang is a well-known graphic novel author. I can reel off a list of five or six books and series he’s written, but until now, hadn’t actually read any of them. I decided to remedy this problem starting with this Printz award-winning book, now included in the reading list of just about any graphic novel course you’d care to take.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. First Second, 2006.
American Born Chinese starts off telling three distinct stories. In one, we hear the mythic adventures of the Chinese trickster god, the Monkey King. In another, two Chinese boys, both rejected by the white kids at their school, rather reluctantly make friends, bonding over their shared Asian identity and their love of transformer-style toys. At one point, waiting for his mother at a traditional Chinese store, Jin Wang shows the elderly proprietress his transformer. She tells him, “It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” In the third story, a blond boy named Danny is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit, insisting on going to high school with him and playing out every horrid Asian stereotype out there, quickly ruining any chances Danny has of social success.
So much I knew going in. And I knew that the stories eventually all tie together. You have to stick in until then, because frankly, the individual stories up until then aren’t all that interesting. (Me being me, I liked the stories of the Monkey King best.) After they come together, they are brilliant. It’s a look at the painful reality of prejudice and the costs on either side of trying to fit in or retain the old culture. One of the things that stuck out the most is how the kids at the schools depicted, from elementary up through high school, are never accepting of the minority kids. I asked my love to read this, because he, unlike me, has experienced being the only Asian kid in school. Happily, it sounds like his experience was much less harsh than those of the characters in the book – and maybe my status as a high school reject owing to painful introversion and nerdiness was more similar to that of the characters in the book. We both still thought it an excellent book, deserving of the awards it’s received.