Gene Luen Yang is a comics creator I hold in high esteem thanks to his work on The Shadow Hero and the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. I know him as a writer who strives to make Asian voices heard, and who depicts the Asian experience as something natural and relatable, as opposed to foreign and exotic. Recently, I read American Born Chinese, Yang and colorist Lark Pien’s 2007 award-winning comic, it resonated with me on a very deep and fundamental level. It’s to the extent that I have to wonder if the story it tells—and the tools it uses—are not intrinsically understood by those for whom race is neither an active or even passive issue.
American Born Chinese tells three seemingly disconnected narratives. One is about the Monkey King, loosely based on the classic novel Journey to the West, and his attempts to prove himself the equal of the gods. Another follows Jin Wang, a Chinese boy born in San Francisco’s Chinatown whose family moves to a predominantly white neighborhood. Jin has to balance his desire to be more like the other “normal” (read: Caucasian) kids against his friendship with a Chinese immigrant classmate named Wei-Chen Sun—particularly when it comes to his crush, a white girl named Amelia. The last is about a boy named Danny who is exasperated by his cousin Chin-Kee, a bizarre figure who seems to embody every awful Chinese stereotype. The three stories eventually come together in an interesting way, highlighting a common theme between all three: the pressure, both internal and external, to change yourself to match what the world says is worth something.
What I find interesting—and extremely personal—is that while the end of the book hammers home the idea that you should love who you are, its specific lens made me feel in my marrow each signal and hint at the conflict Asian-Americans have in terms of cultural identity. The name of the book itself speaks to a common distinction made among Chinese-Americans, those who were born in the US and embrace or at least assume its values (American Born Chinese, or ABCs) and those who have immigrated from China or Chinese-speaking places (Fresh off the Boat, or FOBs).
Growing up, if you were an ABC, you never wanted to do anything that could be read as FOBbish—which was made all the more complicated if you were first generation and your parents immigrated. Wearing clothes that were too Chinese meant you were a FOB. Speaking with an accent, or even in an imperfect way, meant you were a FOB. Kids didn’t know or care that maybe you just mumbled—it all sounded like “ching chong” to them. The American culture and even some Chinese adults to a certain degree communicated the idea that whiteness or a facsimile of whiteness was something to aspire to. Combined with the Chinese spirit of hard work, it was meant to be a recipe for a kind of success. At the same time, the terms ABC and FOB were primarily used among Chinese and Asian kids, almost like we were trying to self-police our collective behavior.
Jin’s initial reluctance to getting to know Wei-Chen reflects this fear of being seen as “too Chinese.” Wei-Chen tries to talk to Jin in Chinese, only for the latter to reply that he should speak English in America. As an immigrant with an accent and different cultural norms, Wei-Chen is basically everything Jin’s trying to run away from. When Wei-Chen then starts achieving things that Jin cannot or believes he’s not American (i.e. white) enough to do, and when Jin encounters racism from those he considered close, it flips his world upside down.
The Monkey King’s increasingly desires to be accepted by the gods. He learns mystic arts and all the things gods are supposed to be able to do, but they still only see him as a monkey. At the same time, he tries to correct his monkey-like behavior—for instance, by wearing shoes. The parallels between Jin and the Monkey King jumped out at me immediately, though I wonder if that’s the case for all readers.
Chin-Kee’s role initially seems to be highlighting racist imagery of Asians. There’s even a kind of laugh track at the bottom of every panel he’s in, as if you’re watching a sitcom with a wacky cousin. But as the story unfolds, his purpose becomes clearer: he embodies the fear that many Asian-Americans have about their image of American-ness showing cracks. If only they could just keep that side of themselves hidden, the world wouldn’t question whether they belong.
There’s an early scene in the comic where Jin is eating dumplings, and a couple of white kids make fun of him for it, even going as far as to say they’re made of dog meat. Chin-Kee is basically the personification of the shame Jin feels in that instant. Dumplings would be innocuous in China or other countries, but they become a barrier to acceptance in his mind.
While it never quite got that bad for me in my own life, I recall questioning why my family would sometimes eat steamed buns for breakfast, when American TV told me it should always involve muffins or something. My parents tried their best to provide a life that was both Asian and American, but on more than one occasion, I would ask, “Why do we have to eat rice so often?” It was only after I came back from my first year of college that I realized what a blessing daily rice and a home-cooked meal from my parents’ culture could be.
In 2019, Asian acceptance is at a high. Between cultural shifts that call to attention subtler forms of racism to successful films and TV shows starring Asians without the need for kung fu, things have changed. But there’s still an Asian-American experience whose trials and triumphs build day by day, and whose specifics may not be communicable to those unfamiliar with such a process. While it may never be entirely possible to bridge that gap, I hope we continue to build.