Monday, June 1, 2015

Comic Critique: American Born Chinese

 American Born Chinese is a graphic novel written by Gene Luen Yang that concerns the impact of life in America from the eyes of a young child of Chinese descent, while presenting a dramatic, lighthearted retelling of the famous Monkey King from the classic myth, Journey to the West.  

The main character hides away his inner self and puts up a charade
so that he may fit in better. But deep inside, Danny was always Jin.

The characterization carries a certain impact in the form of the protagonist, Jin Wang.  Jin is a young boy, who was born in San Francisco, yet is ostracized by the other children at school due to his Asian heritage.  The torment he receives makes him feel different and less than the other kids, so he begins to try and change himself and ignore his family history.  

This causes the central theme of American Born Chinese, self-identity.  America was founded as a cultural melting pot of many cultures, but it is evident that the predominant Caucasian culture has set a standard that makes Jin feel out of place.  Jin fails to realize that since he was born and raised into the American culture, he is inherently a part of it, yet because he has parents that were not raised American he has been instilled with values of their heritage.  Jin only views this in the negative sense throughout a large portion of the graphic novel, but he eventually realizes the great advantages that are involved in having access to more languages and facts that are unavailable to others that did not grow up in his circumstances.  Due to his additional background, Jin is able to communicate with more people and go to certain places where the majority of people do not speak English, showing that the point of the Monkey King’s words “I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey” rings true for anyone that is trying to hide the essence of who they truly are.  Once Jin realizes “how good it is” to have his Chinese heritage, he is able to create an identity that is truly his own, rather than one of shame and imitation.

The hot-headed Monkey King is infuriated that he is not
allowed in because he does not wear shoes, but after all,
what monkey wears shoes?

At an early point in the story, Jin is playing with his Transformer toy and speaks with an old lady who tells him, “It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”  The fact that Jin is playing with a Transformer toy is quite relevant to the theme to the entire story.  Transformers was an American-made series based on Asian-made action figures, which is similar to the American-born Jin with his Asian-based heritage.  Jin stating that he wants to be a Transformer foreshadows his eventual rejection of his Chinese family by adopting the “Danny” persona.  As the old lady said to him, he is giving up a part of his soul by hiding his own lifestyle from himself.  Jin is a young confused boy, unable to cope with the antagonizing he receives at school and stress of feeling different.  

Jin shows that the pressure had affected him quite early on as he is picked on by two bullies for eating dumplings for lunch.  One of the boys claims he is eating dog and treats him cruelly for eating something with which he was not accustomed.  Later, when Jin meets Wei-Chen, he treats him badly for talking to him in Chinese and says, “You’re in America.  Speak English.”  Jin seeks to distance himself from Wei-Chen by pushing him off and saying he already has enough friends, referencing the same kids that were bullying him earlier.  Jin shows that his shame of his heritage would make him rather associate with those who treat him badly than with good people of Asian backgrounds.  

In one of the best scenes of the book, the Monkey King flees from Tze-Yo-Tzuh's
reach and uses his incredible abilities to flee to the edge of space and time.

Eventually, Jin starts to gain a friendship with Wei-Chen.  Through this friendship, he begins to slightly accept his Chinese culture.  He still gets embarrassed when he is made fun of, but is able to gain confidence to ask out the girl he likes.  He finally is happy with who he is, when he is approached by a schoolmate, Greg, and asked not to go out with the girl anymore.  Greg says, “She has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with… I just don’t think you’re right for her.”  This is taken by Jin to be an act against him because he is Chinese.  Greg is the only one that defended Jin when the other kids were bullying and teasing him, but is now the one that makes him feel the worst of all.  Jin is driven over the edge, completely angered with his background and trying to avoid it in any way possible.  He vents his rage on Wei-Chen and his girlfriend, Suzy, by kissing Suzy and calling Wei-Chen an “F.O.B.” which means “fresh off boat” and is an extremely cruel comment towards immigrants.  Jin destroys his ties to any Asian people and does everything he can to change his appearance, taking on the “Danny” persona.

Jin, now calling himself Danny, goes on to reject any association with his Asian heritage and takes his rage out on his cousin, Chin-Kee, who is the epitome of Asian stereotypes.  Chin-Kee’s entire portrayal is everything Jin wants to avoid.  Chin-Kee’s name alone is offensive as it is the same as chinky which is a derogatory comment about Chinese people.  Jin eventually learns that Chin-Kee is in fact the Monkey King in disguise.  The Monkey King had come to help Jin realize who he truly was, by confronting him with everything he had been trying to hide from.  The Monkey King details about “how good it is” to be a monkey, as it was the only way for him to escape the prison of rock, and that Jin can find the positives to his Chinese heritage.  If Jin is able to accept himself, then it doesn’t matter what foolish and hurtful comments are made about him, he will know that he is above such cruel words. Beyond that, the scene where Jin goes to the Asian bakery shows that he had been denying his Chinese background to the point that he did not know how to read the menu, an ability he would have had if he were not ashamed of it so long.

Chin-Kee speaks in broken "Engrish," has Chinese take-out boxes for luggage,
and is tailor made to be the most offensive stereotype possible.

This comic connected incredibly well with me. As a mixed race person myself, I grew up having a portion of time where I used the fact that I have mostly Caucasian features to ignore my Puerto Rican ancestry when I wasn't around family.  So, Jin, like me, needed to have his eyes opened to the many positive aspects that come with having a wider and lesser known culture than most other people with which he was involved.  Once he did, he was able to accept himself, make his own identity and realize “how good it is.”

Ultimately, American Born Chinese is a powerful story that evokes serious emotions. I've had friends react really annoyed by Jin denying his heritage and I've seen people relate with his experiences. The rounded, simple art style makes it a light read, the Monkey King subsection provides action and comedy, but the main storyline following Jin and his transformation to Danny is the highlight of the book.  

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