Wednesday, June 26, 2013

REVIEW: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang

“It's easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul.” 

I decided that I needed a break from the heavy emotional lifting of the last few books, so I chose to read American Born Chinese before Never Fall Down. Now that I am reading Never Fall Down, I know that it was a wise decision.

I loved American Born Chinese. It is the first of the books in this class that changes format, not only by being a graphic novel, but by telling three stories that inform each other, and in the end mix together. It also uses mythology to comment on modern situations, which, if you will pardon the expression, is my jam.

The first story, the story of the Monkey King, echoes back to the Hate List. The Monkey King wishes to join the god's party in heaven. He is capable and qualified to enter, but he is laughed at and denied entrence because he is a monkey. He trains and trains to become the most baddass monkey ever and then takes his revenge with violence. He tries to change himself to be more like his oppressors (much like Never Fall Down), and turns into a monster himself. He is unkind, unmerciful, and stubborn to the point of inertia. Even when God himself comes and speaks to him with kindness and understanding, he tries to prove he is better than God. He clings white-knuckled to his new human-like persona that he refuses let the charade slip even to save himself. What he doesn’t realize is that being a monkey is his strongest asset.

The second story is of Jin Wang and his struggle to fit in to American High School. Even though he has grown up in the United States, he is treated as an alien, even by the teachers. They hope for his presence to be a learning experience for the class, but they only intensify their xenophobia by their own ignorance of Jin Wang’s life and his culture. He ruins the one friendship he has because he is so concerned with how he is perceived. Like the Monkey King, he denies who he is to fit in.

Which leads to the third story: Danny, a white American boy, is visited by his hooooorribly racist stereotype Chinese cousin, Chin-kee. Chin-kee consistently embarrasses him and ruins his reputation wherever he goes. The story is told with a laugh track, like a sitcom, but in the end, there is a twist that brings all three tales together to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. 

This was an incredible story, very simple and very clear. The illustrations are beautiful and streamlined. It moved along at a nice clip, and it went by so fast I devoured it on one metro ride. The message is never told to you flat out as a moral, but it fairly shouts to you from the rooftops through the intertwining tales: Do not deny who you are. It is your strength.

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