Ultimately, the moral of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is not especially profound. Gene Luen Yang’s three storylines converge to deliver the message of be who you are. Resist the urge to assimilate. Be proud of your heritage and stop trying to deny it. What makes this such an enjoyable and effective story is the way he tells it. Yang throws three competing narratives at the reader, all of which wind up converging in exciting and unexpected ways. One of them is a slice-of-life account of a young Chinese-American student who moves to a new town and finds himself on the receiving end of his almost entirely all-white class. The second storyline involves a mythical monkey-king who is denied access to a party in heaven and responds by trying to elevate himself to a higher class of deity. The third storyline involves an all-American high school student who is tortured by his (inexplicably) Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, the personification of every negative Chinese stereotype imaginable.
This narrative strategy is what prevents the book from devolving into a heavy-handed exploration of both racism and self-hatred. By starting with the colorful tale of the Monkey King, Yang begins the book on a fantastical note. The shift to the story of Jin Wang, the young Chinese-American boy who only wants to fit in. Yang deftly folds humor into what is clearly a painful story to tell. Some of the humor winds up having unexpected repercussions, like when he tells an apothecary’s wife that he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up, and she tells him that he can do it easily, as long as he doesn’t mind losing his soul–and he eventually does.
What really gives the book its power is Yang’s shockingly awful Chin-Kee, a stereotypical buck-toothed, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned simpleton. This use of this out-of-nowhere boogeyman of a racial stereotype who comes along once a year to humiliate his blond & blue-eyed cousin Danny is an audacious choice by Yang. The use of a stereotype to attack stereotypes is a risky move, but the same technique of alternating narratives that breaks up the tone of Jin Yang’s story serves to provide relief from Chin-Kee. He’s funny and horrible and while clearly a satiric figure (who later serves a very specific and unexpected purpose), he also seems to be a bit of a cathartic exercise for the author.
Jin Wang meets a new boy in his class named Wei-Chen, who was sent to America from Taiwan. Jin initially wants nothing to do with him, but they eventually become friends. Meanwhile, we follow the Monkey King’s saga as he’s punished by god and buried under a pile of rock after he tries to be anything but a monkey. Things escalate from there in each of the three storylines as things go very wrong for all of our protagonists, but it’s Jin selling his soul that proves to be a key moment for all three narratives.
Yang’s skill as a storyteller is what makes AMERICAN BORN CHINESE work. His playful art, vivid colors and clear layouts make the book a pleasure to look at as well as read. The stories are deceptively simple, but minor details later take on greater significance in clever ways. The end result is an examination of some very real and painful issues successfully integrated with memorable characters and a compelling story.