This is the second installment in my series of Graphic Novel Reviews, in which I will publish a review each Tuesday until I run out of books. This is based, in part, on a class that I am currently taking about the graphic novel. Read the next one here (to come next week) or go to last week’s review.
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang about the first and second generations of Chinese immigration to America. The story is broken up into three sections: a main dialogue, the story of the Monkey King, and a faux-sitcom about Chinese stereotypes.
This is both an analysis as well as a review; I have tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but they are still present in the following paragraphs.
Chinese stereotypes are addressed through the clips of a supposed show called “Everyone Rovs Chin-Kee.” Audiences are meant to read this is a television show because it is introduced with typical sitcom’s logo and incorporates a laugh track written across the bottom of each panel. Chin-Kee is a manifestation of many of the harmful stereotypes of Asian men: is shown to be an excellent student (for which others distain him), speaks broken english, drools over women, knows nothing of American culture, and eats cat meat. The outlandishly racist character also brings to light the more subtle racism that Jin enounters in the main storyline. Jin is bullied at school for being Asian, and his teachers are no help. Then, Jin’s eventual transformation is indicative of a sort of self-loathing that comes from racial bullying in school. This is perhaps an inditement the American melting pot myth because Jin feels compelled to change to fit in because of bullies.
This story shows the power of the graphic novel by using the combination of art and text in ways other art forms would not be able ot reproduce. For example, during one of the Monkey King scenes, the King breaks free of his pannel while flying beyond the edge of the universe. To show this, he breaks free of his pannel, showing debris of the black line shattering around him. The next page, shown here, is borderless. Because readers have come to know the world to be protrayed within the “squares” of the pannels, this becomes a powerful image of being outside the known world. The haha’s and clapclap’s shown under the pannels of the Chin-Kee clearly show that it is, in fact, a sitcom. This reminds audiences of the portrayal of racial stereotypes in other forms of media, and during Danny and Chin-Kee’s fight scene, the Haha’s become bigger and more menacing. The laughter is almost maniacial. The art style is what helps this clover leaf story to stay cohesive. All of the different story lines tie together in the end, and the art makes that transition much more smooth than it would be in a novel form.
Though the message was a simple one, this is a fun and engaging novel that is accessable to anyone. The ending put me off at first, I thought it seemed rushed and confusing. It is easy to see that the character’s story lines all have to do with transformation and accepting oneself, but I wondered what was gained by connecting them. After some thought, I believe that the ending was the only way to salvage a happy ending for all members involved. Because of that, I will dismiss any initial dismissal of the story.
I reccomend this graphic novel for anyone who enjoys the Monkey King story (or Dragon Ball Z), coming of age narratives, whimsical art styles, or issues of race and racial representation in America.