SUMMARY: Chapters alternate among three stories. The first story is of the rebellious Monkey King, who achieves the 12 disciplines of Kung-Fu in order to become equal to the immortals. The second story is about Jin Wang, a modern-day boy of Chinese heritage. Though he was born in Los Angeles and is an American, bullying and stereotypes have led him to be ashamed of his Chinese heritage. The third story is about Danny, a boy whose egregiously obnoxious Chinese cousin drives him nuts. Though they seem completely separate, the three stories are connected and intertwine nicely by the end.
WHAT I LIKED: I read this book because it is one of the Shanghai Battle of the Books selections for 2015-16. My students seem to like it quite well, so I picked it up to read on the bus on the way home. Believe it or not, this is the first graphic novel I’ve ever really read! As a librarian, I have flipped through many, but I have never sat down to read one from start to finish.
I loved how the Monkey King’s, Danny’s, and Jin Wang’s stories combined as the book progressed. I did not think the stories meshed perfectly, but I liked how it all came together in the end. The very last page made me smile. 🙂
American Born Chinese is funny! The humor is often subtle, and I laughed out loud many times.
I love the unique way the author addresses modern Chinese stereotypes. Many of these are everyday racism, such as a white teacher introducing San-Franciscan Jin Wang as “coming all the way from China” or schoolyard bullying with racial epithets. Others, such as the character of Chin-Kee, hit the reader over the head with it. Reading the Chin-Kee sections was just painful, which brings me to…
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE: People who find the classic picture book The Five Chinese Brothers racist should stay far away from American Born Chinese. The portrayal of Danny’s cousin Chin-Kee is intentionally offensive toward Chinese people. He is a walking, talking Chinese stereotype. Chin-Kee is a buck-toothed, grammatically-incorrect, embarrassment to his cousin Danny. He wears his hair in a long braid and shouts things like, “Harro Amellica!” (p. 48) and “Rong time, no see” (p. 49).
I currently live and teach in Suzhou, China. I ride the city bus for about 30 minutes to school every morning and afternoon. When I read the Danny sections on the city bus, I covered my pages so none of the Chinese people sitting near me would see the illustrations of Chin-Kee. I don’t want anyone to think I agree with that.
So Chin-Kee is all Chinese stereotypes rolled into one. It’s obviously intentional on the author’s part; I am an adult, and I get that. But would your average seventh grader understand that point? Chin-Kee is annoying, loud, and incredibly obnoxious. He pees in someone’s Coke, dances and sings loudly on a table in the school library, and picks his nose. (spoilers here–highlight to see)–>The Monkey King tells Jin Wang that Chin-Kee is Jin Wang’s “conscience” and a “signpost for [his] soul” (p. 221). I didn’t understand this at all. How does Chin-Kee’s blantant offensiveness help Jin Wang want to embrace his Chinese heritage? If Jin Wang’s only tie to his heritage were crazy Chin-Kee, who can blame him for wanting to deny that?
Chin-Kee’s character would make an excellent discussion point for a middle or high school English class. Does the graphic novel format of the book make Chin-Kee more offensive than he would be in a regular novel? Why might the author (who is Chinese) deliberately create such an over-the-top character? Is he trying to push our sensitivities to call attention to the stereotype? Interesting, interesting…
THE BOTTOM LINE: Highly-recommended despite the seriously offensive stereotype. Interesting and easy-to-read, American Born Chinese could foster some serious discussions of racism and stereotypes. Younger teen readers (heck, even some adults) may not understand that Chin-Kee is intentionally stereotyped to make a point, so teachers, librarians, and parents might need to point that out.
STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: We have 5 copies, and they get lots of checkout. Interestingly, though my school is in China and many of our students are Chinese, no student or parent has ever mentioned Chin-Kee’s character to me. This book gets a ton of checkout, so I am surprised no one has ever mentioned it.
READALIKES: Boxers and Saints (Yang)–this is a two-volume set about the Boxer Rebellion.
- Overall: 4/5
- Creativity: 4/5
- Characters: 4/5
- Engrossing: 5/5
- Writing: 5/5
- Appeal to teens: 4/5
- Appropriate length to tell the story: 5/5
- Language: mild; hell, racial epithets (Chink, Gook)
- Sexuality: mild; kissing, indirect references to erection (I think lots of middle school readers will miss these references entirely)
- Violence: mild-medium; beheading, fighting/punching, a man is stabbed through by a demon and roasted over an open fire–these scenes are often more funny than violent
- Drugs/Alcohol: none
Discussion of American Born Chinese by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund–I love this balanced discussion of Chin-Kee’s character. Also includes some of the illustrations, so you can see what all the Chin-Kee fuss is about!
Gene Luen Yang’s webpage for American Born Chinese–I like how even the author recommends this for middle school “in moderated settings.” I agree that many young readers will misinterpret Chin-Kee’s character. They will get much more out of this book with an adult’s guidance.
The Monkey King official movie trailer (2014)–I want to see this now! It can even help me with my Chinese!