October 20, 2016 | Arts and Culture
On American Born Chinese
Graphic novel tackles growing up Asian in America
It’s been a frustrating past few weeks for Asian Americans in the media. The #whitewashedOUT hashtag, which gained traction last summer after major American movies set in Asia featured all-white leads, came to a boil again when a leaked script for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan revealed a white love interest. Last week, the O’Reilly Factor correspondent and perennial frat boy Jesse Watters “interviewed” pedestrians in New York’s Chinatown for his man-on-the-street video segment, belittling Asian people with every racist stereotype he could jam into a five-minute clip.
Most notably, two days ago New York Times reporter Michael Luo penned an open letter to the woman who yelled at him and his family, “Go back to China!” Since then, Luo’s letter has circulated the Internet, inspiring Asian Americans to lay bare the racism they’ve encountered since childhood, from microaggressions to slurs spray-painted on their homes.
This is nothing new. The struggle for Asian-American voices and visibility in mainstream American culture is rooted in a longer history of representations that exoticize and subordinate. Those speaking out against Asian erasure and stereotyping often look back to their own childhoods, at the moment of the first confused sting of marginalization. These childhood anecdotes share an essence of shame, fear, and misunderstanding.
Luo writes in his open letter that his seven-year-old keeps asking him, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”
For many who grew up a minority in the United States, the moment of interrogation often comes in childhood. For me, it was when a first grade playmate asked if I was Chinese, didn’t I pee in Coke? (He asked this in song, no less. And I’m Filipina.) This new, newly noticeable racialized treatment is often the first of unsettling incidents that, insidious, causes a child like Luo’s daughter to question her sense of belonging. It is the beginning of the rude realization that one is, by dint of appearance, generalized and marginalized.
“Is it so bad to grow up Asian in America?” pondered the book reviewer for the New York Times back in 2006. Such was the opening line for his review of a story that follows an Asian-American boy who reluctantly moves from Chinatown, San Francisco and is the new student at a majority-white elementary school.
Since then, American Born Chinese has gone on to win the prestigious Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. It became the first graphic novel ever nominated for the National Book Award, and author Gene Luen Yang was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant last month.
So by its reviews and its gleaming string of awards, it is by all objective measures a terrific book.
But it is a particularly refreshing read in a cultural moment toxic with relentless instances of the trivialization of minorities in media, when cries for inclusivity are stifled or ignored. Ten years after its publication, American Born Chinese is a revitalized breath of smart, honest, authentic air.
It is one of those rare, nuanced portrayals of childhood encounters with racism that has been popularly celebrated. And for someone who grew up Asian in America, it reads like recognition into the dark parts of my own childhood. It can in fact be that bad growing up Asian in America—but if someone else found this part of childhood important enough to retell it, and can share with people, maybe not all hope is lost.
The novel is tripartite, switching fluidly between three disparate narratives until they coalesce at the end, with vibrant artwork throughout. The grounding story is Jin’s, and the reader follows his trials and teenage milestones throughout middle school. In the second story, a mythical monkey king leaves his humble kingdom to demand his place in the world of the gods. The third, and perhaps most painful to read, introduces a hyperbolic, gigantesque, literally yellow-skinned amalgam of Chinese stereotypes. This nightmarish caricature is called Chin-Kee, who visits his white American cousin, Danny, from China, and proceeds to upend Danny’s life. In 19th-century silk garb, Chin-Kee follows Danny to school, excels academically, and urinates in people’s Cokes. Yang effectively crafts Chin-Kee’s exaggerated accent, as when Chin-Kee holds out a take-out box and offers Danny some of his “clispy flied cat gizzards wiff noodle.”
The delight of American Born Chinese is its balanced treatment of Jin’s experiences while coming of age as an Asian American. On the first day of school, Jin is introduced in front of his class by a teacher who butchers his name. This woman goes on to tell the class he came “all the way from China,” which prompts a bully to assert:
“My mommy says Chinese people eat dogs.”
The teacher, unfailingly chipper, counters, “I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that! In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States.”
During this exchange, only the upper half of Jin’s face is shown while his teacher’s cheerily racist speech bubble dominates the panel, reflecting the powerlessness of knowing one has just been appallingly misunderstood.
But American Born Chinese is not “about” racism. Jin’s story is seamless, reflecting both universal American triumphs (Jin’s elation at being noticed by pretty girl) and racist realities (Jin’s pain, being asked by the white, popular boy to stay away from her). It is about real life and finding a place for oneself, a special sort of American bildungsroman.
The graphic novel is marketed for middle schoolers, so there is no lack of fart jokes and fight sequences. But the crass humor is a precursor to more sophisticated revelations. Each of the three stories in American Born Chinese shares an element of identity: questioning whether one belongs and what that costs. In an extremely satisfying turn of myth and metaphor towards the end, Yang plays with the complexity of erasure – not the systemic kind, but at the level of a single child.
When the three stories converge, it turns out that Chin-Kee is the personification of Jin’s fears about being Chinese American. Jin attempts not only to distance himself, but to vilify his own ethnic identity, manifesting his internalized negativity into a monster. In the end, he must learn to accept that being Chinese is not a deficiency, but a part of his whole American self. (A message that Yang pulls off with subtlety and power.)
Back in 2006, the Times reviewer wrote that American Born Chinese had “something new to say about American youth.” It is clear now more than ever that this story is not in fact new, but reflective of shared experiences deeply embedded in Asian American childhood, even ten years later. Revisiting American Born Chinese in 2016 reinstills a careful optimism that authentic Asian American stories can be told—and that they can also make their place in mainstream American media where they belong.