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My Response To: American Born Chinese

Updated on April 19, 2014

American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, was a coming of age story complicated by issues of race and immigration. In that way, it is quite similar to the novel The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. However, American Born Chinese, although capturing the essence of a bildungsroman and thus being a universally relatable story, exaggerated some of the issues of discrimination.

I appreciate stories that confront the issue of racism, but this story proved to be an over-exaggeration. I do believe that the representation of racism in the story is well intentioned; however, I do not believe it ultimately achieved its goal. I, for example, was able to relate to the racism Jin Wang faces in the story, but it is because I was able to relate to it in some ways that I understood that it was exaggerated in other ways. From a quantitative standpoint, in the first section with Jing Wang becoming accustomed to his new school, out of nine pages that feature Caucasian Americans, five of them feature the Caucasians being racist. This means that, for this section, the Caucasians are depicted as racist more often than not. To be fair, in later sections, Yang deemphasizes the racism, implying that he was simply using this section to make a point, but it still seems like he mischaracterized the racism minorities face. As for the qualitative aspect, I feel the level of racism was also hyper-realistic. I had a Korean friend in high school whose name was Chan-Ho Park. Now, granted, we lived in a different, more politically correct time, but still, no teacher ever butchered his name as much as the teachers in this graphic novel. The teachers on two separate occasions pronounce “Jin Wang,” as “Jing Jang,” (30), and pronounce “Wei Chen,” as “Chei-Chen Chun” (36). With my friend, if the teacher couldn’t pronounce his name, they would usually just ask. Also, even though the time period Jin Wang lives in is different than the one I lived in, I remain skeptical because I never experienced racism—nor have I seen racism—anything like what Jin Wang faced. In the graphic novel, one of the boys says to Jin Wang, “Stay away from my dog” (33). Even when in the classroom, there is open and blatant racism. Aside from the teachers utterly mispronouncing the names, the students says this like, “My momma says Chinese people eat dogs” (31). The teacher herself, in response, says, “Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States” (31). As already articulated, I’ve experienced racism in school, but nothing close to that level. I don’t mean to discredit Yang and any racism he may have faced, but even Yang admitted in his e-mail correspondence with a former student that he did not base the racism in the graphic novel entirely on fact.

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Continued

Given the racial angle, the story was certainly about culture and immigration, and it was also a coming of age story. However, the element of religion seemed forced. The element of immigration is mostly emphasized through the racism. The rudeness of the children and teachers demonstrates the hardships of coming to a new country—in this case, the parents were the ones who came to the new country, not Jin Wang himself. Although, it should be noted that Jin himself is not particularly open to immigration, as he tells Wei Chen to “speak English” (37), and refers to him as an “F.O.B.” (89). The aspect of culture is most emphasized by the character Chin-kee. To be clear, Chin-kee absolutely does not represent Chinese culture. However, because he represents a stereotype, he represents how others sometimes see Chinese culture. Chin-kee represents how the Caucasian Americans see themselves as different from people of Chinese descent. So when Yang first introduces Chin-kee with the line, “Harro Amellica!” (48), he’s playing off of stereotypes and American biases. Basically, it is saying that this is how Chinese people feel they are viewed in popular media, which also explains why the graphic novels reads like a sitcom in chin-kee’s scenes. However, these elements certainly, if not mainly, served to add a twist to the universal theme of coming of age. The themes of culture and immigration are undoubtedly important, but everyone can relate to growing up even if they might not be able to relate to the discrimination Jin Wang faced. The moral of the story is, more-or-less to be yourself, as the Monkey King articulates when he says “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey” (223). This is the lesson all the dynamic characters must learn, and certainly Jin Wang and the Monkey King learn this lesson, as their stories parallel each other. There is also a religious angle, but it seems forced. It is necessary to explain the monkey king, however, its purpose beyond that is unclear. It is irrelevant that the religious angle is not emphasized in terms of the plot, but it is noteworthy simply because the course is one in religious studies.

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Continued

I recently read The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which follows a similar storyline as American Born Chinese. I think I made the connection between these two books when I saw the similarity between the title of this book, American Born Chinese, and a phrase in The Namesake “American Born Confused Deshi” (Lahiri, 118). Both phrases refer to an American child who comes from a non-American background, and this is indeed what both stories are about. Both texts have their strengths and weaknesses, but The Namesake is the more realistic story for capturing the American experience for someone who falls outside the cultural norms in some way. The main character, Nikhil, faces racism at certain points, including where some non-Indians are talking about going to India, and say to him, “But you’re Indian…I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your heritage” (Lahiri, 157). This line is similar to the aforementioned line is American Born Chinese where Jin Wang’s teacher assumes he is Chinese and not American, so both Nikhil and Jin Wang have similar experiences. However, the racism is a bit more subtle in The Namesake, which makes it more realistic. Although, The Namesake certainly benefits in that area from not melding together three separate story lines, as American Born Chinese does. However, the three story lines in American born Chinese make it more entertaining as well as adding an extra layer by allowing the reader to see the same message through three perspectives.

American Born Chinese is certainly a coming of age story, but it’s different in the way it utilizes aspects of culture and immigration. However, it is not so unique that it is incomparable, as it is very similar to stories like The Namesake. The story covers enough that I believe anyone could relate to it, but, despite its flaws, I could relate to it even more because of the racism Jin Wang faced.

American Born Chinese

4 stars for American Born Chinese

Citation

Yang, Gene Luen., and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.

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    • NathaNater profile image

      NathaNater 3 years ago

      This book sounds interesting. I believe you about it exaggerating the racism and it sounds like it does, especially in comparison to Namesake. But I haven't read either book. However, I'd have to say that the racism could be very accurate depending on geography and era. I grew up in the 80s in a mostly white town where there are quite a few backward people; and the racism is pretty blatant. As far as the 80s go, all anyone has to do is watch 16 Candles to know how acceptable racism was back then; not my favorite era. The other possibility I thought of is that the author was using exaggeration for a certain effect, though the incidents might have been based in fact; and maybe he was trying to show a certain perspective, how someone views their circumstances. Again, like I said, I haven't read the book yet. I only say all this because the incidents you describe that are from the book are not far off from things I've seen and experienced and so they didn't seem too exaggerated to me. Although I'll admit some of it seems a bit blatant, but I've seen variations on some of the racism that are basically the same as what happens in the events you described from the book.

      At any rate, I appreciate your honest review here and it's piqued my interest in the book. Thanks for sharing.

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