American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006). 240 pages, Square Fish Press.

I love stories where there are one or more plots that seem to be completely unrelated. Then they come together, one by one, in a way that I never saw coming. Sometimes it’ll be two stories that run at the same time. Sometimes you follow different characters doing completely different things. I always enjoy seeing how the author twines plot lines together.

But every once in a long while, I come across a book where I don’t even realize I’m reading an integrated story. And then an amazing feeling creeps over me, as it becomes clear that the stories – which I thought were completely unrelated – are in fact all part of one single story.

The graphic novel, as an art form, is quite new. The vast majority of graphic novels are actually collected reprints of comic books (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sandman, etc). A great trend over the past decade, however, has been the emergence of the true graphic novel – a work created from the beginning as a single book, one single story, told by the author in words and pictures in such a way that it could never be done with words alone.

Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese is a wonderful book. It has won all manner of awards, and it deserves every one of them. This is a book that reveals so much to the reader, so cleverly drawn and written, so perfectly plotted, that it literally took my breath away as I neared the end. And it is the perfect, the absolutely perfect, example of how seemingly completely and utterly different stories merge together in a way that is totally unexpected and seamlessly plotted.

As I began to read American Born Chinese, I just assumed it was a collection of short pieces, just grouped together under the theme of being written by the same author, a man who is an “American-born Chinese”. It wasn’t until about page 200 that it became clear that I was reading a true novel, and that the three alternating, seemingly completely unrelated stories were all part of a whole.

The three individual plot lines take the form of alternating chapters. The book begins in the “ancient past”, and relates the myth of the Monkey King – a monkey who is determined to shed his animal nature and become elevated to a God. The Monkey King is an actual Chinese folk hero; I cannot say how much of the Monkey King story here is “the real story” and how much is Yang’s invention, but it reads like a real folk story.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, a lonely Asian-American kid from San Francisco whose parents move to the midwest. Suddenly Jin is one of only two Asian kids in the entire school, and his natural shyness becomes all encompassing. He’d do anything to fit in with his white classmates, especially to win the heart of the girl he has a crush on.

And the third story – written with an accompanying laugh track and applause – is the sitcom plight of Danny, an All-American white teenager who is mortified every summer when his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit. Chin-Kee is a painfully obvious ethnic stereotype, complete with buck teeth, a pigtail, and yellow skin. Even his name is an ethnic slur – which I didn’t figure out until after I finished the book, by the way. Spell it slowly to yourself, stopping after the fifth letter…

Each chapter of the book alternates, one after the other, between these three stories. Chapter 1 begins the tale of the Monkey King. Chapter 2 begins the story of Jin Wang. Chapter 3 begins the story of Danny and Chin-Kee. Chapter 4 picks up with the Monkey King again… and so on throughout the book. Each story line is very good, although I found myself particularly drawn to the saga of Jin Wang. His painful attempts to make friends in his new school reminded me a lot of my own life during middle school – minus the racial problems, of course.

As the book nears the end, each of the three stories seems to be reaching their own, separate conclusions. But then – no, sorry, I can’t and won’t spoil it. It was just too well done.

What I liked so much about this book is that it’s a small, human story. Here is a fantastic, wonderful, modern graphic novel that doesn’t have any super heros. No aliens. No vampires. Just good, honest storytelling, combined with a bit of Chinese folk wisdom. The “big reveal” at the end of the book is not really “big” at all. It’s just about one person, one character. No one dies, no one saves the world, no one makes news, none of that. It’s just the story of a few people, and how they live their lives, and a great lesson.

Obviously, I’m not Asian. Gene Yang could have made up the entire folklore part of this book from whole cloth, and I would never know. All of the Chinese symbols that are integrated into the typography and layout of the book could be gibberish. I doubt it, however. Those elements just feel… right.

In Chapter 2, when we first meet Jin Wang, he’s a small boy in San Francisco. His mother likes to visit an ancient herbalist in Chinatown for her allergies, and Jin sits out in the waiting room while she takes her treatment. Jin is playing with a Transformers toy, and he tells the herbalist behind the counter that when he grows up, he wants to become a Transformer.

He stares at his toy, embarrassed, and tells the old lady “But Mama says that’s silly. Little boys don’t grow up to be transformers”.

The old herbalist looks at him with a baleful eye. “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” she says. “I’m going to let you in on a secret, little friend.” The next panel is an extreme close up of the old woman’s face, as she tells Jin: “It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul”.

And that is the heart of what the book is all about. Better to be who you really are, than to forfeit your soul in an attempt to become something else.

Go get a copy of American Born Chinese. Buy it at your bookstore. Order it from Amazon. Or check out a copy from your local library. Even if you “don’t like comic books”, or have never read a graphic novel, or if you think this book looks like a collection of cartoons, please – take a chance on this book. You won’t be sorry. It’s charming, enlightening, and breathtaking.

My hat is off to Gene Luan Yang, and I hope he writes-and-draws many more books to come.

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