Back in college, one of my friends took a comic books class where he had to read “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang. He raved about it just enough that years later, I remembered the title and put it on hold at the library. This is the first book I started and finished this year and it is probably going to set the tone for the rest of my 2018 reading.
“American Born Chinese” is graphic novel with three intertwining stories. One is about the Monkey King who learns how to accept himself via the work of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all. The other is about Danny, a white boy who gets a visit from his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee. And the main story is about Jin, a Chinese boy in a mostly all-white school who’s struggling to fit in.
Jin is very aware of his Chinese heritage and how it sets him apart from other students. The teachers mess up his name, assume where he’s from—all the typical, ignorant things one might expect. He finds a safe space and friendship in his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun, who also happens to highlight and remind him of his heritage at times when I’m sure he would’ve rather not. Jin is made aware of his otherness more so when it comes to girls, in particular a white girl named Amelia. He changes himself to fit in, resulting in a hairdo that matches one of the other boy’s in order to look more “American” and appealing to Amelia. He works up the courage to ask Amelia out and even suffers an embarrassing armpit incident, all to have a white boy tell him not to ask Amelia out again because he thinks Amelia can do better than an F.O.B (fresh off the boat).
This takes us to Danny and his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee follows Danny around school, embarrassing him with he food he eats, the way he talks, and the things he says that mark him as clearly Chinese and not American. Later in the book, we come to find out that Danny is actually Jin and Chin-Kee is the Monkey King sent to help Jin face the struggles he has with his identity.
The three stories are such a great way to explore the themes of identity. In Danny’s story, we are able to see and confront what it would be like for Jin to be white. When the Monkey King appears to him, there’s a sigh of relief. We’ve seen him come to accept his identity, and we hope that he can help Jin so the same. And of course there’s the scene at the end with Jin, Wei-Chen, and the milk tea. We root for Jin, even when Jin doesn’t seem to be rooting for himself. If you relate to Jin, you know deep down that your culture is a part of you, but you also know what it feels like to have it used to shame you.
Unlike Jin, I went to school with a lot of people that looked like me. Elementary school was full of other Latino kids, Black kids, Asian kids, and Polish kids. And my high school was the first and last place that was actually diverse. But even being surrounded with people like me, I realized that my interests (books and writing) weren’t exactly what other kids like me were into, at least not in the same way I was. Not having any representation in the books I was reading didn’t help either.
As an immigrant myself, I still often struggle with the expectations of my culture and the culture I was brought into. I think I’ve found a way to live with an identity I feel comfortable with in both cultures. I’m a Mexican woman that likes books. I’m very often the only Mexican in the room when I go to readings, but nowadays, I try to count myself and my presence as a step forward. However, I still feel left out at my workspaces, where unlike in school, I am the only one of my kind. As positive as I try to be, I still feel left out.
That feeling of being left out is not limited to the immigrant experience or even to kids like Jin whose parents are immigrants. It’s quite common, especially nowadays, for kids born in this country to any culture attacked by the current White House resident to feel as if they don’t belong in the land they were born. I don’t know how to fix this with anything other than empathy, to start. And one of the ways to gain empathy is to read, read, read stories about people like Jin.
This is the third book aimed at younger readers that I’ve picked up this winter. I was starved of literature that reflected characters with similar stories as mine and the kids I grew up with. Now, as an adult living in this unsurprising yet disappointing political climate, I think I’m subconsciously picking out these books because I need them. I need to read about these characters because they give me hope that, just like the characters, I will be okay. I need to read about these characters because I need to know that they exist now, that they exist for the young people that will one day be the decision makers in this land because they, like Jin, do belong and are as American as America herself.
Five outta five!