Fresh Off the Boat:

Stories of the Americanization Process in Anya’s Ghost and American Born Chinese (Part Two)

While Anya’s Ghost subtly weaves the theme of the “FOB” and the struggle with Americanization into its story of coming of age and the supernatural, Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning American Born Chinese takes direct aim at the process of Americanization, “FOBs”, and finding a balance between one’s native and adopted cultures. Yang’s story is especially deceptive as he makes use of a notable cartoonish style of art, which could fool less-careful readers into not taking this novel seriously and simply disregarding it as mere children’s reading fodder.  However, Yang expertly intertwines three separate story arcs of the Monkey King, Jin Wang and Wei-Chen Sun, and a fictional television show starring the American teen, Danny and his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee[1].  What is particularly compelling is the way that Yang, by the end of the novel, weaves all three seemingly divergent storylines together into one powerful conclusion that forces both Jin Wang and the reader to confront both Americanization and one’s ethnic heritage and consider the possibility that one can be both American and Chinese without the exclusion of the other.  As King-Kok Cheung states, there is a “desire to reclaim a distinctive ethnic tradition [that] seems forever at odds with the desire to be recognized as fully “American” (5).  Like Vera Brosgol, Gene Luen Yang seeks to look at this problem and suggest there is potential for a compromise.

The first story arc introduced is that of the Monkey King who undergoes a difficult journey to understand that being a monkey does not make him a lesser being.  He spends a good deal of time learning new disciplines of kung-fu that further empower him to demonstrate his physical prowess and mental acumen over other deities, but he ends up becoming an unruly, destructive force who—despite physical and mental superiority—has no spiritual balance. As a punishment for his hubris, Tze-yo Tzuh trapped the Monkey King under a large mountain of stone until he was willing to return to his normal, monkey form and stop trying be something he was not.  Ultimately, this sets the groundwork up for the struggle many immigrants may feel of trying to be something (wholly American) that they are not.  This is not to say they can’t be Americans, but the suggestion is that one does not have to totally refuse that part of him or herself that is also Chinese (or Native American, or Russian, or African American, etc.) in order to also be American.

The second storyline is perhaps one of the most visually uncomfortable for readers as it simulates a sort of television sitcom portraying the day-to-day life of a “normal” Caucasian teenage-boy, Danny, who suffers through the visit of his exchange student cousin from China, Chin-Kee, who is the visual embodiment of all stereotypes against Chinese and many Asian people.  Where Danny is a good looking, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and generally non-descript boy from “Anywhere, USA,” Yang presents Chin-Kee with yellow skin, slanted eyes, buck teeth, continually smiling, dressing in traditional Hanfu, and spouting comments that reinforce nearly every possible racist stereotype against all Asian peoples.   His dialogue is peppered with selections from a Chinese restaurant menu and bad kung-fu movies, and his actions reflect the worst held beliefs many Westerners may hold about people from the Asian countries.  We also see that upon arriving at Danny’s home, Chin-Kee meets a female friend and leeringly rushes over to her and says while salivating: “Such pletty Amellican girl wiff bountiful Amellican bosom!  Must bind feet and bear Chin-Kee’s children!” (Yang 50).  Clearly, Chin-Kee plays upon past fears of Asian men marrying Caucasian women, as past state and federal laws illustrate such a fear against misogyny.  Further, Chin-Kee demonstrates himself an exceptional student playing upon further stereotypes of the model immigrant.  It is in the final story arc of the novel with Jin Wang’s trials that this racist comedy of errors eventually comes to a close.

The third and final story arc serves as the focal point around which the first two come to a head. Jin Weng is a young boy whose parents bring him to America at the age of nine, and he experiences first hand the difficulties of being a “FOB.”  As he tells an elder woman who inquires as to what he wants to be when he grows up, Jin responds that he wants to be a like a Transformer robot that is “more than meets the eye” (Yang 28).  The woman responds in a way that the reader realizes there is more to what she says than Jin understands: “It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as your willing to forfeit your soul” (29).  Yang continues to illustrate the different ways Jin’s Chinese culture was utterly misunderstood out of an in the classroom: “I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that [referring to a question about eating dog]!  In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States” (31).  The implication is that his family did do these things, but stopped once they arrived in the more “civilized” United States.  A second implication is that by hearing this from the teacher—a source of authority and knowledge—this seems to illustrate a more pervasiveness to this ignorant understanding of other cultures.

Jin is not left as the sole Asian student in his school as a new boy, Wei-Chen, arrives from Taiwan.  Interestingly, Jin’s immediate response to seeing Wei-Chen was there was “something [that] made me want to beat him up,” (Yang 36) which perfectly illustrates what Cheung refers to as a reaction of “American-born Asians [who] discriminate against so-called FOBs” (9).  Although Jin and Wei-Chen grow up to become friends, Jin’s discomfiture with Wei-Chen’s continued display of Chinese mannerisms and culture is painfully obvious as he continually corrects his friend: “You’re in America.  Speak English” (37).  Even years later, Jin continues to act the part of the enforcer of Americanization to Wei-Chen: “This isn’t Tawain, you doof!  Stop acting like such a F.O.B.!” (89).  Still, it is Wei-Chen who gets the girl, is less socially awkward around others, and is generally more at peace with himself than his “well-assimilated” friend.  Both Yang and Cheung are in agreement with one another when Cheung states: “Many people of Asian descent feel, to this day the need to prove their Americanness by shedding their originary culture and by setting themselves apart from new Asian immigrants” (6).  Certainly, Yang’s character of Jin illustrates this principle with each attempt to appear more American and less Chinese.  And it is at the end of the novel where these three seemingly different narrative threads come together as one and reinforce Cheung’s belief that “a psychological sense of home is the most important sense of home” (7).  Their friendship comes to an end, however, when Jin’s attitude boils over and he verbally attacks Wei-Chen:

Wei-Chen: “We’re brother, Jin.  We’re blood.”

Jin: “You’ve got to be kidding.  You and I are nothing alike.  And don’t worry about your stupid girlfriend.  She’s not my type.  […] Maybe I think she can do better than an F.O.B. like you.” (190-91)

As Jin falls asleep that night, he dreams of the old woman to whom he told he wanted to become a Transformer robot years earlier.  “So, little friend,” she told him, “you’ve done it” (193).  In a violent and psychologically cruel manner, Jin certainly did transform himself into something different from Wei-Chen, but his uncertainty of what that something is does not sit well with him.

In a strange twist, Yang then merges the three plot lines together: Danny is actually the image of being that Jin aspires to be; Chin-Kee is actually the Monkey King who was sent by Tze-yo Tzuh to serve as Jin’s conscience and confront him with his own self-hating, racist attitudes towards his own people; and it turns out that Wei-Chen was on a quest of his own as the disguised son of the Monkey King to learn about life as a human.  In a way not dissimilar from the Monkey King’s trial of coming to accept his true form to free himself from under the mountain of stone, so too must Jin accept himself as Jin—and not his desired Danny persona—to free himself from the mountain of self-hate he buried himself under, and this is accomplished through his reaching out to the Monkey King’s son, Wei-Chen, and rebuilding the broken friendship—emblematic of Jin’s final acceptance of his Chinese heritage and culture through accepting friends who share those values.

Although both Anya’s Ghost and American Born Chinese could be misinterpreted to be simple comic books and below literary notice as both Brosgol and Yang adopt more simple and cartoonish approaches to their art.  However, the storylines each creator delivers are anything but simplistic.  Both novels attempt to continue the discourse in their own way of the difficulties many immigrants and their families experience in assimilating and Americanizing themselves while still struggling to hold on to their own ethnic heritage and practices.  One should not disqualify a novel because it adopts a different approach that is not traditionally seen as “serious” and often viewed as mere entertainment; doing so would close one off to the different and exciting ways new authors and artists are picking up this highly relevant and much-needed discussion of an ever-growing presence of new Americans.

On a final note, one of the difficulties I encountered while exploring multiethnic perspectives on the “FOB” was the challenge of finding multiethnic women creators who work in the ‘comics as literature’ medium—particularly those who self-identified as being from a multiethnic background.  The journey of first-generation immigrants to the United States and the struggle they and their children face in finding a balance between their competing cultural heritages is one that is not going to go away any time soon.  Seeing such an apparent deficit in an emerging and exciting field of literature such as comics and graphic novels should emphasize the need then for increased involvement in developing this genre with more voices from all sorts of backgrounds.  Certainly, in a time when more and more people of different ethnic backgrounds become American citizens, it is truly important to open the doors in the cultural discourse for every voice to be.

Works Cited

Brosgol, Vera.  Anya’s Ghost.  New York: First Second, 2011.  Print.

Cheung, King-Kok.  “Re-Viewing Asian American Literary Studies.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 1-31.  Print.

“FOB.”  Def. 6a. OED Online. 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press. March 2011.  Web.  29 July 2011.

Lowe, Lisa.  “Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique.”  Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics.  Durham: Duke UP, 1996.  1-36.  Print.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Rushdie, Salman.  Satantic Verses.  New York: Picador, 1988.  Print.

Sollors, Werner.  “Beyond Ethnicity.”  Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture.  New York: Oxford UP, 1986.  20-39.  Print.

Yang, Gene Luen.  American Born Chinese.  New York: Square Fish, 2006.  Print.

[1] This is clearly meant to play upon the racial epithet “Chink” applied to persons of Chinese descent.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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