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American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
First Second, $18.99, 240pp
Published: September 2006

I'm in a lot of book groups on Facebook and I see a lot of "100 Books You Ought to Have Read" type lists, most of which are problematic to varying degrees. However, one of them recently included a graphic novel that I owned but hadn't got round to, even though it was released by First Second, one of my favourite publishers. Clearly it's time for me to read this multi-award winning book now as my Nameless Zine graphic novel for April.

It's a wonderful story with a truly magnificent twist, especially given that we know it's coming but it surprises us anyway. That's because it's also three stories that seem entirely separate until, as the front flap promises, they come together. Because that's on the front flap, I knew to expect that twist, but I couldn't see where it would be coming from until it was there and then it was, just like that, and everything became clear. And that was notably important, because one of these three stories is beyond embarrassing.

The first story is one that I already knew, because it's the timeless story of the Monkey King. I first discovered it on the late seventies Japanese TV show 'Journey to the West', which was dubbed into English and shown on the BBC as 'Monkey'. I was about ten years old and it was my first real exposure to Chinese culture and to Buddhism, both of which I appreciated even though I was paying more attention to the martial arts fight scenes. Later on, I picked up a translated copy of the source novel by Wu Cheng'en, which was written in the 16th century. So I know about the Monkey King.

If you don't, he's born from a stone egg on a mountaintop, becomes the king of a tribe of monkeys, but achieves a level of enlightenment and is invited to join the Heavenly Host, albeit starting out as the Master of the Stable. He soon upsets pretty much everyone and, after losing a challenge to Buddha, is stuck under a mountain for half a millennium to learn patience. He's freed by a monk, who is on a pilgrimage to India to retrieve holy scriptures. On the way, the monk and the monkey king, along with their two companions, Sandy and Pigsy, embark on many adventures and the whole thing is a bundle of fun. This version runs pretty closely to what I remember.

The second is entirely new, because it's the story of Jin Wang, the only Chinese boy in an American school. While he's American born, he's first generation, because his parents immigrated separately, met, fell in love and got married. Now they live in San Francisco, but it's hard to find a way to belong when there's nobody there like you. This could have been a maudlin story and there's some of that self-pity in Jin Wang, who is still young enough to think he knows everything, but it's more than that. He grows as a character, because that's what life does to the best and worst of us. He isn't either, but he grows anyway and it's interesting to read that experience.

It's the third that's completely embarrassing, though it's not because of its nominal lead character, Danny, who's an American boy at a different school to Jin Wang. He's older too and he finds it a lot easier to fit in. He's quite a popular kid, who plays basketball and can date girls. In fact, there's nothing obviously problematic anywhere in Danny's life until his cousin turns up. That's Chin-Kee. Oh yeah. And Chin-Kee is every single Chinese stereotype rolled up into one cringeworthy package.

And let me tell you, if you think about how awful such a character might appear, this is ten times worse. He's loud and extroverted. He salivates over the girls and volunteers all the answers in every class. He looks a little worse than Mickey Rooney in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', complete with squinty eyes, huge buck teeth and a queue haircut. He speaks in pidgin English, with every L and R reversed, and he consistently talks about himself in third person. You can imagine how well dialogue like "Would cousin Da-Nee rike to tly Chin-Kee's clispy flied cat gizzards wiff noodle?" and "Now Chin-Kee go to riblaly to find Amellican girl to bind feet and bear Chin-Kee's children" plays out in an American school. This is so outrageous that I found myself checking author Gene Luen Yang's heritage because you just have to be completely safe in your Chinese heritage to get away with this. Did I forget to point out that he's yellow?

And, if you've already forgotten that these stories are supposed to converge, then you're where I was. Somehow they come together, as unlikely as that may seem, and how they do so is a feat of imaginative genius. No wonder this book won an Eisner and a bunch of other awards on its original release. It's easy to say that it speaks to the Chinese American experience, but not enough, because most of us don't know what that means. Readers of this book in 2006, when it came out, were probably mostly American, but they weren't all Chinese American, so they hopefully learned something about that experience. I'm not even American, so I learned even more.

And there's a lot to learn. Obviously, racism is a good part of it, not only but especially because of Chin-Kee. He's not just a stereotype, he's a collection of stereotypes. Much of his look is modelled on the "yellow peril" era that came at the end of the nineteenth century in characters like Fu Manchu, but he acts more like a bumbling fool in Hollywood films of the forties and TV sitcoms from the fifties. What's more, he encompasses the more modern stereotypes, like all Asian kids being overeducated know-it-alls. Some of those stereotypes are clearly negative, but others remain negative even though they have positive aspects, like knowing stuff. We should be careful not only not to insult but in how we compliment.

But it's not all about racism. Much of it is about being an outsider. That's especially obvious in Jin Wang's life as the only Chinese American kid in school, but it's there in the Monkey King's story too. There's a great scene that has him attempt to attend a dinner party in Heaven but is kicked out because he's not wearing shoes. He quickly decrees that all the monkeys under his rule must wear shoes, but that doesn't change who they are and it hasn't the slightest effect on how Heaven perceives him. At least the Monkey King is rescued by a wise monk; Jin Wang doesn't have that luxury.

Some of it's about transformation, which I didn't catch as quickly and acknowledge as deeply, even though there are hints as early as the very first panel in Jin Wang's story, which has an even younger version of himself sitting in the back seat of his parents' car playing with a Transformer. Jin Wang isn't Chinese; he's Chinese American. It takes both sides of that to define who he is. Danny thinks he knows who he is but Chin-Kee constantly challenges that. And the Monkey King spends a large amount of time trying to be something he isn't in order to be liked or accepted by people unlike him.

There's a lot more here that I could say but I'm not going to spoil that magnificent twist. I didn't see it coming. I don't know if you will or not, but you deserve to be given the option. This is a superb book, that tells a deep story in an original way, and that's clear after turning the last page. Thinking about just makes it better still. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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