Thursday, September 11, 2014

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The school where I teach sent me a copy of American Born Chinese over the summer.  In October, I have to lead a conversation about the graphic novel with a group of kids as part of a schoolwide conversation about respect.   I'm an English teacher, that doesn't faze me, but I can see why others might be anxious over talking about the book with young kids; one of the three narratives contained within the book traffics in some pretty horrific stereotypes: Danny, an All-American kind of high school kid, is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee, a cartoonish Chinese figure, comes for an extended visit:

Chin-Kee swaps his L's for R's and vice versa, eats dog, shows off in class, and generally makes Danny's life miserable.  There's a method in this, of course; Chin-Kee represents the kind of self-image that young Asian-American students fear carrying around with them, but I expect younger kids might not have the foresight to anticipate the way Yang expresses this idea late in the book.  The fact that Danny is white makes it even more difficult to figure out exactly what Yang is aiming for, at first.

Its significance is tied to the two other narratives in the book: The story of the Monkey King, who wants to be anything but a monkey, and the story of Jin, who is fearful of associating with a more recent Taiwanese immigrant to his class.  Jin's story especially shows clear parallels with the story of Danny and Chin-Kee, and together they become a larger narrative about the need to fit in and the pressure to abandon one's cultural heritage.  In the end, Yang ties these three stories in a way that is clever and tidy; in this way the book rewards patient readers who are willing to wait for the relevance of Chin-Kee to become clear.


Brent Waggoner said...

Two Asian books in a row.

Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

A book I have been meaning to read.Enjoyed your comments.

Brittany said...

A few of my students picked that for their outside reading (it had to be a Printz Award or NBA for Young People's Lit award winner or nominee - ABC was on both lists), and I'm excited to see what they think.

I saw the author on a Last Airbender panel and a Graphic Novels panel at comic con and he was so charming, good natured, funny, and talented - I'm very excited to see his work getting out there!