Book Review – American Born Chinese

American Born ChineseAmerican Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a story about racism per se, but a story about the ideological toll of racism. There are three narratives, with three different tones, inter-cut with one another until the ending sews it all up. One follows Jin, a Chinese-American boy who moves out of a mainly Chinese enclave in San Francisco, and into a school where he is only one of two Asians in his class (soon one of three). This piece feels wholly realistic, and one can imagine that author/artist Gene Luen Yang drew a lot of it from personal experience. Some parts are funny (Jin’s parents are unfamiliar with deordorant, a major problem for their adolescent son on his first date), some parts are squirm-inducing (when a classmate asks Jin if he’s eating dog meat).

A second plot line could almost be pulled from the funny pages, if it weren’t so glaringly racist. This one concerns blond, all-American high schooler Danny, who somehow has a Chinese cousin, Chin Kee (the resemblence to the racial epithet is deliberate). Chin Kee embodies every negative stereotype about Asians, speaking with an exaggerated accent and embarrassing Danny at every turn. It would be maddening, except that we know Yang must have something up his sleeve.

The third plot, which actually opens the story, is a wry retelling of the Monkey King myth, most famously recorded in Journey to the West but referenced in such works of high art as the Jackie-Chan/Jet-Li vehicle Forbidden Kingdom. (This movie is one of my guilty pleasures, cultural appropriation be damned.) Monkey is, well, what you’d expect from a mythological monkey — a bit of a wise-ass, a bit of a trouble-maker, kind of stubborn and kind of willful. Yang’s telling is bright and funny, and hits all the high points in a way that makes the story accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with the source material and the cultural context. This could have been a comic of its own, and I would have loved it. Woven together with the other two plots, it becomes a beautiful fable about accepting who you are and what the world expects of you — but not being limited by it. And not being a jerk.

I adore Yang for doing something compassionate and warm and funny and unique. This is not a story to learn about structural racism, or how stereotypes get ingrained in people to begin with; it’s a story about coping, and getting along in society where those stereotypes do exist. And not turning on each other or yourself.

View all my reviews

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