‘American Born Chinese’ by Gene Luen Yang combines mythical heroes & folklore with the ‘great American school’ experience… through the lens of first generation Asian immigrants. If you’ve seen any teen Hollywood flick, you’d know why the school bit is in single quotes. As a non-American, I sometimes wonder if teen bullying is as rampant in the U.S as their films make it out to be. Although, it’s not like women go to bed in full make-up and sarees, if Indian television soaps are to be believed.
Well, let’s get back to Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel. It starts off with a vibrant dinner party in heaven for deities, demons and spirits. Yang uses a lot of bright colors, giving the panels a very early 2000s cartoon-network-like vibe. In fact, one of the protagonists, the monkey king, reminded me a little of ‘Mojo Jojo’ from Powerpuff girls. Although Yang’s money king doesn’t look like a toxic green chimp with bloodshot eyes. But both of them are megalomaniacs with anger issues.
There are actually three parallel story-lines running through the book, each very different from the other. First there is the monkey king who aspires to become a God, especially after he is denied entry into the heavenly dinner party. Then there is the more contemporary story of little Jin-Wang, the only Chinese-American boy in his class, who has no friends. And finally, the bizarre story of Chin-kee, the Chinese cousin to white-boy Danny. Chin-kee is excruciatingly annoying, a giant walking-talking stereotype, due to which Danny is constantly changing schools, so he can escape his cousin’s infamy. Had a non-Asian author created Chin-kee, they would’ve definitely been ‘cancelled’. The buck-toothed dude is like a racist-bully’s wet-dream come to life.
Author Gene Luen Lang hilariously ties up these different tales into a story about friendship, identity and being comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s really hard to tell till the end just what on earth can connect the three protagonists with each other, which is why the Chin-kee story seemed uneccessary and creepy. Through these unique characters, Lang illustrates the alienation of being different, and the racism immigrants face – from unintentional humiliations to deliberate ostracization. And then there is the absurd expectations of strict Asian parents – that you survive life without dating anybody until you maybe get a PhD and a job.
The monkey king chapters were the most engrossing, with a lot of elements from Chinese classic-literature blended in, so you get gods, demons, kung-fu, monks and a quintessential moral fable at the end of it all. Little Jin-Wang however has more relatable and hilarious experiences, as the loner child who is trying very hard to fit in. Yang’s artwork is not very intricate, but is bright and fun to look at. There are a lot of yellow & green tones, which automatically makes the panels cheery.
If it hadn’t been for the irritating Chin-kee, I would’ve given this graphic novel a 5/5. Also, even though Yang merges all the sub-plots seamlessly, the climax was very abrupt. It felt like you are watching a movie, and when it’s time for interval, you realize the movie is over, with your popcorn bucket still half full.
‘American Born Chinese’ is entertaining, will have you laughing out loud, and will make you expect a lot more. It’s a 4/5 from me.
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