American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
2007 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album
For about eighty percent of the way through American Born Chinese I wasn't very impressed. The story about being true to yourself was trite, simplistic, and pounded over and over again. Between the three story lines there was one that I thought was pretty good, one that left me bored, and one that just left me baffled. It wasn't adding up to a great experience. Then Yang through something in that made me reevaluate the entire book and added a bit of texture to the message he was telling. So in the end I was left feeling pretty good about American Born Chinese even if I wasn't completely enamored with it.
There are three stories in American Born Chinese and each chapter rotates to a different one. The first is a retelling of the legend of the Monkey King. The version of that story here has the Monkey King attempting to be accepted by the gods by being human instead of a monkey. When this fails he lashes out against the heavens. The second story is one of Jin, a Chinese boy who finds himself isolated at school after his parents move. He seeks acceptance from the Caucasian students but his only friends are the two other Asian students at the school. As he reaches adolescence he complicates his life by pursuing a popular girl. The final story is about an all-American teen whose life is thrown into chaos by visits from a Chinese cousin. This cousin is the most horrific racist stereotypes that I've encountered in decades.
I found myself enjoying the story of the Monkey King quite a bit and not because it had monkeys punching gods (as a rule that doesn't hurt but if your book isn't about monkeys punching gods don't expect to get points for it). The Monkey King was a more interesting character than anyone else in the book. He was the one who got to be dynamic. He was the character who set a goal and worked toward it. He was the character who had a personality beyond sullen teenager or racist caricature. He might not have been introspective and wore his character flaws on his sleeve but that just made it more interesting to watch him react. I've read a lot of comic book adaptations of the Monkey King story (almost all of them manga) but this is the one that I enjoyed the most mainly because Yang infused him with a purpose beyond belligerent monkey.
In comparison the realistic chapters bored me to tears. These teenagers fumbling through relationships just weren't interesting characters. Jin treats everyone poorly throughout the book which made him hard to sympathize with. Jin has a tendency to sit around and mope rather than taking action. When he receives abuse from his fellow students he doesn't do anything more than pass it along to those he considers friends. This may be a realistic reaction but it isn't presented in a way that's interesting to read about. Jin lacks a personality and his attempt to fit in (I almost wrote "attempts" there before it occurred to me that there was only one real attempt in the book which speaks to how thin this story is) is superficial.
The parallels between these two stories is obvious but the different when reading is that the Monkey King takes action while Jin tends to sit around and lump abuse on his "friends". Even in his actions Jin is a passive character and wanting the popular girl isn't as sympathetic of goal as wanting to be accepted in general. Jin's view treats the girl as a prize to be won rather than a person to reach and while the Monkey King may be hitting them with sticks he's still trying to reach the other gods as people.
The third story was just strange. I couldn't connect the American teen with the Chinese stereotype beyond some kind of metaphor for assimilation. The conclusion of the book brings this last chapter into focus and does it in a way that ties the entire book together.
Artistically I wasn't impressed with American Born Chinese. There's nothing really wrong with it though I did find it to be a bit flat. It's just there isn't anything that made me enthusiastic. Yang uses simple designs that aren't distinct enough to call stylized and he layouts are as straightforward as they come. Basically the art didn't put me off the book but I'd never recommend it for the art either.
If I could divide up American Born Chinese smoothly I wound up disliking more than I enjoyed. On the other hand the conclusion marries the parts I disliked with those I did so smoothly that they become inseparable. This means that taken as a whole I liked it. If you have a higher tolerance for coming of age stories about author stand-in protagonists then you'll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did.