As alienated kids go, Jin Wang is fairly run-of-the-mill: he eats lunch by himself in a corner of the school-yard, gets picked on by bullies and jocks and develops a sweat-inducing crush on a pretty classmate. And, oh, yes, his parents are from Taiwan. This much-anticipated, affecting store about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood: it's a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape. The fable is filtered through some very specific cultural icons: the much-beloved Monkey King, a figure familiar to Chinese kids the world over, and a buck-toothed amalgamation of racist stereotypes named Chin-Kee. Jin's hopes and humiliations might be mirrored in Chin-Kee's destructive glee or the Monkey King's struggles to come to terms with himself, but each character's expressions and actions are always perfectly familiar. True to its origin as a Web comic, this story's clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he's depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you'll already have reached out to others. (Sept.)
Graphic novels that focus on nonwhite characters are exceedingly rare in American comics. Enter American Born Chinese, a well-crafted work that aptly explores issues of self-image, cultural identity, transformation, and self-acceptance. In a series of three linked tales, the central characters are introduced: Jin Wang, a teen who meets with ridicule and social isolation when his family moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to an exclusively white suburb; Danny, a popular blond, blue-eyed high school jock whose social status is jeopardized when his goofy, embarrassing Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, enrolls at his high school; and the Monkey King who, unsatisfied with his current sovereign, desperately longs to be elevated to the status of a god. Their stories converge into a satisfying coming-of-age novel that aptly blends traditional Chinese fables and legends with bathroom humor, action figures, and playground politics. Yang's crisp line drawings, linear panel arrangement, and muted colors provide a strong visual complement to the textual narrative. Like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Laurence Yep's Dragonwings, this novel explores the impact of the American dream on those outside the dominant culture in a finely wrought story that is an effective combination of humor and drama.
Gr. 10-12. With vibrant colors and visual panache, indie writer-illustrator Yang (Rosary Comic Book) focuses on three characters in tales that touch on facets of Chinese American life. Jin is a boy faced with the casual racism of fellow students and the pressure of his crush on a Caucasian girl; the Monkey King, a character from Chinese folklore, has attained great power but feels he is being held back because of what the gods perceive as his lowly status; and Danny, a popular high-school student, suffers through an annual visit from his cousin Chin-Kee, a walking, talking compendium of egregious Chinese stereotypes. Each of the characters is flawed but familiar, and, in a clever postmodern twist, all share a deep, unforeseen connection. Yang helps the humor shine by using his art to exaggerate or oppose the words, creating a synthesis that marks an accomplished graphic storyteller. The stories have a simple, engaging sweep to them, but their weighty subjects — shame, racism, and friendship — receive thoughtful, powerful examination.
Three seemingly unrelated stories blend into a memorable tale of growing up Chinese American. The book begins with the ancient fable of the Monkey King, the proud leader of the monkeys. He is punished for entering the god's dinner party by being buried under a mountain for five hundred years. Second in the story of Jin Wang, the son of immigrants struggling to retain his Chinese identity while longing to be more Americanized. The fnial story is that of Cousin Chin-Kee, an amalgamation of the worst Chinese stereotypes. Chin-Kee yearly visits his all-American cousin Danny, causing so much embarrassment that Danny must chage schools. The final chapter unifies the three tales into one version of what it means to be American-born Chinese.
This graphic novel first appeared as a long running web comic on http://www.moderntales.com, where it enjoyed an enthusiastic following. The artwork is clean and distinctive, with varying panel styles and inking that is visually appealing. The Cousin Chin-Kee story line is extremely hyperbolic and at times difficult to read, as it embraces the most extreme negative Chinese stereotypes, but it displays some of the difficulties in perception faced by young Chinese Americans. This graphic novel could be especially cathartic for teens and adults of Asian descent, but people of any ethnicity would find themselves reflected in the universal themes of self-acceptance, peer pressure, and racial tensions. This book is recommended for libraries serving teens and adults, particularly those enjoying graphic novels. —Sherrie Willians
Raised in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jin Wang moves to a new neighborhood and a new school in third grade, where he quickly realizes that he's an oddball among Anglo-American classmates. Further complicating his life is the arrival of a Taiwanese student who latches onto him for companionship and sticks like a burr on through junior high. The picture of dorkiness in his huge eyeglasses, Robo Happy shirt, hiked-up pants, and cowlick, Wei-Chen Sun turns into Jin's closest friend and greatest embarrassment, both a cheerleader and a stumbling block to Jin's efforts to fit into mainstream school life and win the blonde girl of his dreams. Weaving around and ultimately converging with the seriocomic story of Jin's coming-of-age problems are two related tales that comment on issues of identity. In the first, the Chinese legendary Monkey Kong, banished from the gods' dinner party because he is a monkey, perfects his skills and disciplines to the point where he claims to have transcended his monkeyness. As "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven," he's ready to take on all comers including the creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh, but he is ultimately punished, humbled, and redirected to the understanding that his freedom will only come through acceptance of his true nature. The last piece of the narrative triad is a sitcom, "Everyone Wuvs Chin-Kee," complete with a laugh track, in which broadly stereotyped Chin-Kee turns up on an annual visit to Americanized cousin Danny and, in a series of classroom episodes that play out Jin Wang's worst nightmares, turns Danny's social life into a shambles. The graphic novel format is particularly well suited to managing the flow of three simultaneous storylines, and the action sequences of the Monkey King's tale and over-the-top satire on the portrayal of immigrants in American pop culture settle right into their spacious frames on the generously white bordered pages. Compositions are tidy and the palette is softly muted, so that even the strongest colors in the action scenes never reach the intensity of a visual assault. Kids fighting an uphill battle to convince parents and teachers of the literary merit of graphic novels will do well to share this title. EB
A National Book Award finalist and ALA's Printz Award winner, this fable stars the mythological Monkey King, realistic youngster Jin Wang of Taiwanese parentage, and TV sitcom teen Danny. All three are dogged by an unwanted identity and humiliated by others' prejudice. The Monkey King trains to be a god but is unceremoniously bounced out of heaven and urged by "he who is" (the great god) to be what he is: a monkey. Jin tries to be accepted and romance a fellow student but gets picked on by classmates. Danny does well with friends until Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, a bitingly funny bundle of racist stereotypes, makes his annual visit and behaves so offensively that Danny must change schools. Finally, the three stories suddenly merge, to center on Jin coming to terms with his minority experience and moving beyond his own fear and hostility. Coalescence comes almost too quickly, but the trivision approach and treatment are unique and moving. The art is simple, colorful, and both attractive and effective. Some potty humor; recommended for teen and adult collections.—M.C. (from the Graphic Novels column by Martha Cornog & Steve Raiteri)
Review in 9/1/06 KLIATT
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that tells the story of two protagonists. The Monkey King is a figure from Chinese folklore. Angry at not being admitted to a Heavenly Dinner Party because he isn't wearing shoes, the Monkey King masters the twelve disciplines of King Fu and sets about proving that he is a god to his fellow deities. He does this by beating up anyone who calls him a monkey. Danny, an Asian boy drawn with white features, wants to be like the rest of the kids in his high school. Unfortunately, the arrival of his cousin from China, Chin-Kee, dashes his hopes. Chin-Kee is every cliché about Chinese people (pronounce his name phonetically) rolled into one fun-filled package. Chin-Kee is so full of fun that a laugh track follows him around, but Danny, who has transferred out of two high schools already because of Chin-Kee's past antics, isn't laughing. There is also a third storyline featuring Jin Wang (Danny in junior high) and his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun.
This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year. It reminds me of Derek Kirk Kim's excellent Same Difference and Other Stories, which is also worth purchasing. The three storylines are interrelated, and all have the same theme: accept who you are. Be warned that the character of Chin-Kee will arouse strong feelings: some may find him offensive while others may think he's funny. American Born Chinese contains racial stereotypes, comic book violence, and one urinating monkey (from the back). It is highly recommended for all graphic novel collections.
Is it so bad to grow up Asian in America? One might be forgiven for asking upon encountering American Born Chinese, a graphic novel that, with its dark exploration of Asian-American adolescence, won last year’s Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature and was also a finalist in its genre for a National Book Award.
After all, Asians are widely perceived to have it easier than other minorities in the United States, especially African-Americans, whose coming-of-age struggles have been chronicled for decades by writers like Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson and Sharon G. Flake. But in American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang makes growing up Chinese in California seem positively terrifying.
The narrative is divided into three parts: the coming-of-age tale of the Asian-American Jin Wang, which centers on his relationship with his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun; the fantastical tale of a Monkey King who does not want to be a monkey; and the deeply disturbing story of Chin-Kee, a grotesque who takes every Chinese stereotype and wraps it into a leering, drooling package. Yang seems to use Chin-Kee to express his deepest fears of how others perceive Asian-Americans. In the book’s more realistic sections, Wang’s friend Wei-Chen is embarrassingly "fresh off the boat"; Chin-Kee is less embarrassing than monstrous. He comes to the United States for an extended visit with Danny, his blond, blue-eyed cousin, and enters with a shout of "Harro Amellica!" (The author uses Chin-Kee’s L/R switch to great effect — at one point he says he’s having a "lorricking good time" in his new school.) He wants to bind the feet of Danny’s attractive study partner. His eyes are pupil-less slits. And he dominates Danny’s classes, reminding us that the image of a Chinese student filling out all the SAT bubbles correctly can be as damaging as one eating "flied cat gizzards."
More disquieting than Chin-Kee himself is the reaction of his American peers. They accept him with blank, idealized political correctness. Only when he begins to engage in truly disgusting behavior do they turn on him. It is as if Chin-Kee is trying to make others despise him.
While Chin-Kee’s coolie outfit harks back to the 19th century, Yang — who teaches high school computer science in San Francisco — also takes from modern sources. In one scene, Chin-Kee dances on a table singing "She Bangs" in the style of William Hung, the Berkeley student who turned a ridiculed American Idol audition into a brief singing career in 2004. Hung’s hooks were his geeky appearance and accent; his music video soaked him in bling and surrounded him with backup dancers to drive home the point that he would never have bling or backup dancers. American Born Chinese blends Chinese and American cultures in inventive, unexpected ways. Structurally, its interwoven stories form a trilogy — a familiar Western construction — but the tale of the Monkey King is dominated by groups of four: four Major Heavenly Disciplines of kung fu; four emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence (an invention of Yang’s). Thus four, a cursed number in Chinese numerology, dogs the Monkey King until he comes to terms with his identity. At the end of his story, in the book’s most clever ethnic synthesis, he turns four to his favor, becoming one of four emissaries to the West who replace the wise men in their pilgrimage to see Jesus.
This image of the blending of Asian-American and white cultures will be tested in the coming years. As the white population in America falls below 50 percent, around 2060 (according to census projections), the definition of "white" is once again set to expand as it did for Italian- and Irish-Americans. Who will get to join the club? Or will the club finally fall to pieces? Caught up in these complex questions, it is easy to forget that American Born Chinese also functions well as a comic book. (Many graphic novelists are taking back this once-disparaging term.) The art blends the clean lines of anime with a bold American palette. Yang is equally adept at depicting a high school cafeteria and the Monkey King’s fantastical realm.
American Born Chinese is sometimes needlessly crass — it opens with a joke about breasts and peaches — and it is hampered by a confusing ending that stretches to resolve the three tales. But with Chin-Kee’s striking embodiment of ethnic confusion and self-betrayal, Gene Luen Yang has created that rare article: a youthful tale with something new to say about American youth.
by Gene Luen Yang