It’s hard for me to review AMERICAN BORN CHINESE without thinking about my own identity and experiences as a comic reader of Asian descent. And I also don’t want this to become fan mail, instead of an actual review, but this book is a monumental experience for myself and for anyone who has ever struggled with identity problems. It can’t be separated: I am a comic reader of Asian descent. That’s all there is to it and I can’t separate who I am from what I do even when reading stoopid comix. I remember reading comics where the Punisher killed an Asian gangster by jamming chopsticks in his eyes. I remember watching old Fleischer Superman cartoons with “Japoteurs” wreaking havoc on American pride. I remember Psylocke becoming sexualized by transforming from a proper Englishwoman to a Dragon Lady. I also remember the rationalizations I got from people over these incidents and how no one thought these were a big deal. Well, they were a big deal and Gene Luen Yang’s National Book Award nominated/Michael L. Printz Award-winning (The Printz Award is for excellence in young adult literature) book brought all those things back to me in a flood of emotion and made me reaffirm my pride in who I am as a person.
With AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, Yang takes the collective pain of being young and Asian American and forms it into a beautifully drawn, masterfully told story about coming to terms with who you are. The book consists of three interconnected stories—A charming retelling of stories from JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Which Dragonball Z’s Son Goku was also loosely based on), a young Chinese boy going through an identity crisis, and a sitcom starring a Long Duk Dong-style character (Anyone who tells me John Hughes is a genius gets punched in the neck) named Chin-Kee who embarrasses his American cousin every chance he gets. The way Yang weaves these fibers into a cohesive unit is inspired, entertaining, and a bit sobering.
The first thread, featuring the Monkey King bristling at his rejection from the gods sets the tone for the entire narrative. Upon being slighted by the immortals for being a monkey, the king sets off to become more human in appearance and reject his natural ways. Interspersed with this story is the tale of Jin Wang, a young Chinese boy in a predominantly white school, who deals with overt and subtle forms of racism on a daily basis until an old lady from his past visits him in a dream and changes more than just his life. The third thread is of Chin-Kee, who embodies every Asian stereotype (“Bloken Engrish,” overachieving student, William Hung) and causes copious amounts of embarrassment for the American relative in charge of him.
Of these characters, only Chin-Kee accepts who he is (For reasons made obvious later), and just about every Asian American pal I’ve had has had the “if only I weren’t Asian” moment, which is absolutely heartbreaking. That’s where the term F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) originated, so that we could distinguish ourselves as Americans and not “Ching-Chongs.” Identity issues are a terrible thing, and as you get older, you start to regret the things done in its name. My buddy Charles jokingly calls it the “moment I knew I was going to Hell,” that moment we sold our souls because we couldn’t accept who we were (Which is an image Yang uses was well). His was when he yelled at his grandmother for not speaking English in public. When I was a kid, the history museum had some terra cotta statues on loan from the Chinese government and I pretended to be sick, because I knew (I JUST KNEW!) that place was going to be crawling with F.O.B.s and I didn’t want to be associated with them. I look at the pictures my parents took of my brother standing next to the giant terra cotta soldier and it makes me sick with guilt. There are tons of stories like this out there. It’s frightening, sad, and regrettable that we all felt this way and I really wish this book had been put in my hands when I was 14.
…Jesus Christ, every little cousin I have is reading this book.
No one wants to discuss it, but there is a form of institutionalized racism in comics and there’s still a certain level of xenophobia when it comes to Asians in comics, even though Asians have revolutionized the way we look at comics from Henry Kiyama to Jim Lee to Adrian Tomine. I know this firsthand because of those of you who’ve contacted me (Ah, the joys of making your e-mail address public) with concerns of how I only review manga and how that’s not good for diversity on the site. That makes absolutely no sense, but I know you mean no harm when you say these things—Mostly because you say things like “I only say this because I’m trying to help” or “I just don’t want you to get a reputation as a manga guy.” I didn’t want to break the fourth wall in this way, but some of you people seriously need to do some soul-searching here. I think the rise of manga has pointed out that we have a long way to go (“goddamn Nipponese comics?” I mean, are you fucking serious, dude?) as far as respecting other people. Maybe Superman doesn’t “Jap Slap” dudes anymore, and I’m sure the Punisher just shoots Asians like he does anyone else, but respecting people isn’t a “one and done” deal. It’s an ongoing process and we’re getting closer every day.
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is one of those books that deserves to be read. Period. It doesn’t deserve to be read in the name of racial harmony, or because “you owe us,” or any stupid shit like that. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE deserves be read because it’s an amazing work and a great example of what can be done with this medium, whether you’re brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian. But for Asian Americans readers, this book is a really special experience and one long overdue.