Wednesday, July 04, 2007

American Born Chinese

by Gene Yang

So the first thing I bought since I've been back in America is American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Yang. Odds are you've probably heard of this, I mean it was nominated for a National Book Award.

The set-up is basically this, the story is made up of three strands, the first one is the story of the Monkey King, or rather, a sort of prequel to the Monkey King's doings in Journey to the West, how he came to be the hero he became to be, the second is the story of Jin Wang, a boy whose family moves him to an all-white school in a small town, and finally the story of a white teenager Danny, who has a cousin Chin-kee, who comes to town every year and wreaks havoc on his life by embodying every Chinese stereotype known to man. And somehow, Gene Yang manages to weave these stories into a coherent whole, with meaning and stuff. And eventually you see how these stories come together. Their relationship becomes a lot clearer in the rereading, but the comic is pretty light on words, so it makes for a fairly easy read.

There are a lot of things I liked about the book. The Monkey King is a famous trickster hero, but Yang puts an interesting spin on the story, making the Monkey King a stand in for the subaltern, and in particular, the Asian American subaltern, who, despite his accomplishments and achievements, never gets invited to the party because he's a monkey. And the Monkey King's desire to wreak havoc stems directly from a desire to prove himself as more than a monkey.

Jin Wang's story, which is a fairly typical one in Asian American literature, complete with racial self-hatred and a desire to be white, appealed less to me. And honestly, this story has already been done millions of times. However this narrative is complicated by Jin Wang's relationship to Taiwanese FOB, Wei-chen Sun, his friend and "brother." Wei-chen, although he also experiences the same racism as Jin is far more comfortable with his Asian identity, and serves as a foil for Jin's self-hatred.

The final story, involving Chin-kee, is potentially offensive. Chin-kee is intentionally an exaggeration of the Chinaman stereotype. This was actually the story I enjoyed the most, in part because it felt to me the freshest of the three. Like I said before, in the short annals of Asian American literature, the Monkey King has been done, and so has the whole "I'm the only Asian American in my town and I hate myself" thing. There's something gleeful and somewhat cathartic in the way that Chin-kee causes chaos at the school. Something in me thought that Gene Yang got the whole stereotype thing spot on, from the eating cat-heads and innards, peeing in someone's Coke, knowing the answer to every question in school, while consistently confusing the l's with r's every single time. Chin-kee is a remarkably well written well thought out embodiment of the spectre of the Chinaman/FOB. Yang also pokes some fun at current events having Chin-kee belting out "She Bangs" in the school library. Up until then, it was pretty unclear what the time period was, but the "She Bangs" part, coupled with Wei-chen's transformation into rice rocket driving, bling wearing gangsta FOB kept the ending fairly fresh for me.

Over all, it was a well-written well put together book. However, the story just didn't resonate for me personally. In some ways it illustrates the generation gap for me. I think I've mentioned this about 87 times before, but I really don't feel that the "I'm the only Asian American kid in my town and I hate myself"TM is the story of my generation of Asian Americans. I really don't. That just isn't the world I grew up in. I can sympathize, but in the end I just can't relate. Incidentally, I have theories that this type of story is the type that white critics and reviewers just eat up. That said, it is a very well crafted story, well drawn, well put together, well plotted the works. And I'm not sorry I shelled out 16 bucks to pay for the thing, not one bit.

Interestingly, Gene Yang is buddies with Derek Kirk Kim, whose story Same Difference, to me epitomizes the new stories of Asian America. Between these two, and the largely Asian American contributors to the Flight anthologies, whether or not Adrian Tomine gets around to completing his White on Rice trilogy, the comics scene is definitely looking up in Asian America.

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