American Born Chinese (ABC) by Gene Luen Yang is a modern day fairy tale. It’s a wild story about identity and finding yourself.
If you’re looking for an interesting read or a fresh perspective on identity this spoiler-free review will help you find out if ABC is right for you.
ABC features three, unrelated tales that come together with humor, wit, and insight. Each tale works together with the others to create an unforgettable story!
American Born Chinese tells the stories of:
🏈 Jin Wang, a first-generation Chinese-American. He wants to fit it, but being the only Asian kid in school isn’t easy.
👑 The Monkey King, one of China’s most enduring fables. He’s the most powerful monkey on Earth! But what he wants is the respect of the gods.
⛔ Chin-Kee, a ridiculous and racist stereotype of Chinese people.
Interested? Then read on and find out why American Born Chinese is a graphic novel masterpiece you should read today!
Summary Of American Born Chinese (No Spoilers)
Let’s start with a quick, spoiler-free summary of American Born Chinese.
On a ‘bright and starry night’ the Chinese Gods, Goddesses, Demons, and Spirits meet in heaven. The sound of their music and the smell of their drink drifts down to Flower-Fruit Mountain. Home of the Monkey King.
Now the Monkey King is a swell guy and a god in his own right. He’s also a Kung-Fu master whose skills are legendary!
So he figures that his invitation to the party must have gotten lost in the mail… and invites himself.
But after waiting in queue for hours he’s told his name isn’t on the list.
Why? Because he’s a monkey. So Monkey King does the only reasonable thing. He beats up all the assembled deities and goes home.
The story cuts to Jin as he and his family are moving into a new house.
His parents (both Chinese) came to the States as students. Having spent most of his life near San Francisco’s Chinatown, he’s a little nervous about moving.
Jin is the essential third-culture kid. Growing up between two cultures and trying to figure out how to navigate between both.
His fears come true on the first day of school. The teacher doesn’t know his name. The class jerk claims that Chinese people eat dogs. And he’s the only Asian boy in school.
But then a new kid joins the school. His name is Wei-Chen Sun and he’s from Taiwan.
Wei wants to make friends but Jin brushes him off. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with this foreign kid. Especially one who speaks bad English and reminds him of his Chinese heritage.
That is until he figures out that Wei also loves transformer action figures!
What Could Go Wrong? Stereotypes, Shoes & Falling In Love
Time for an interlude in the form of a bad sitcom, featuring Chin-Kee.
Meet Danny your good-looking, popular boy next door. He’s got a huge crush on his friend Melanie. But their romantic moment is interrupted by the appearance of his cousin Chin-Kee.
Oh brother… Chin-Kee is a caricature of stereotypes. Dressed in traditional clothing. Exaggerated features. He speaks in wired metaphors. (He’s also super creepy around women).
Needless to say, Danny isn’t thrilled. Especially when Chin-Kee announces that he’ll be coming to school with Danny. What could possibly go wrong?
The stories pick up and start sharing common themes at this point.
The Monkey King fights for acceptance among the other gods, by wearing shoes.
Jin falls in love with a beautiful ‘All-American’ girl. What follows is his struggle to fit in with and be accepted by White America.
And Danny’s cozy life is ruined by his embarrassing Chinese cousin.
How do all these stories fit together? Will the Monkey King ever be accepted by the other gods? Will Chin-Kee ruin Danny’s life?
You’ll have to read American Born Chinese to find out!
The Art and Writing of American Born Chinese (ABC)
Wow… this one is deep. Let’s start with the easy bit.
Simple. Cartoony. Stylized.
Story-wise ABC reminds me of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
At the same time, it’s a ‘coming of age story’. But unlike the fictional Joe the Barbarian, this is a second-generation immigrant’s story.
Like the heart-breaking Maus, this story is personal to me.
Gene Yang describes the conflict that children from more than one culture often face. You want to be part of and be accepted by the people around you, but you are different… It’s this struggle with being the ‘other’ that American Born Chinese captures!
ABC uses a classic Chinese fable to give us a beautiful view of identity and the need to be accepted.
I actually think this is a graphic novel that all young people (and adults) should read! It’s that good.
American Born Chinese is also incredibly funny. I really like it and you might too!
Is there something I don’t like about American Born Chinese?
Hmm… this one is a little tough. Some of the Monkey King interludes were a little long. But I’ve never heard the fable in detail before, so it all balances out.
American Born Chinese is a ‘coming of age’ story. From the point of view of a first-generation Chinese-American. Teenage angst meets an ancient legend and a sitcom about ethnic stereotypes in the USA.
In my research, I learned that American Born Chinese was a huge hit in China. I can see why. But it’s a story that will appeal to anybody. Regardless of background or culture.
Jin has to find and accept who he is. His heritage is part of that. Gene Yang deals with this issue in a mature, positive and interesting way.
ABC is an engaging read. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad. And an awesome look at being the ‘other’ and finding yourself.
If you’ve ever doubted that graphic fiction is ‘real’ literature read this novel. Even if you don’t like literature.
The Verdict: 👍 👍 👍 (Must Read!)
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