February 01, 2007

Learning Your ABCs

This book is a finalist for the graphic novels category of the 2006 Cybil Awards.

The only other Asian in my class was Suzy Nakamura. When the class finally figured out that we weren't related, rumors began to circulate that Suzy and I were arranged to be married on her thirteenth birthday.

We avoided each other as much as possible.

Jin Wang, who grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown, is having trouble fitting in at his new school, where he's one of only a few Asian-American students. He comes face-to-face with racist stereotypes, cruel classmates, and, eventually, a crush on a classmate, Amelia. However, Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese is much more than just the story of a bicultural boy trying to fit in. Reality, imagination, and myth interweave in alternating story threads until, eventually, they seamlessly merge—an apt metaphor for the reconciliation of different aspects of identity that reside in the multicultural individual.

Jin learns that he, too, is trapped by his own set of stereotypes, his own belief in the exaggerated images of Asian-Americans. His sense of inferiority immobilizes him and creates self-hatred, much as the seemingly all-American character Danny dissociates himself from the hated stereotypical behavior of his cousin "Chin-Kee" in alternating segments of the story. On the other hand, pride takes a role as well—as exemplified in the parallel story of the Monkey King who thinks he is a god.

This is a touching, deep story; more than a little cynical, but with a redemptive and hopeful ending. The excellent artwork is funny, cute at the right times, and has a simple clarity that is reminiscent of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. Although the parody of racist self-hatred, Chin-Kee, could potentially bypass (or even offend) readers who don't see the sarcasm, this is a deceptively funny story of cultural conflict—internal and external—that's much more complicated than it seems on the surface.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Oh, I read this book three months ago and forgot to say it: this book deserves EVERY AWARD IT HAS EVER WON, and MORE. I adored it, and would pass it on to any kid, graphic-knowledgeable or no. Some really EXCELLENT stuff. I just blogged about it because the author is a local teacher - but he's brilliant as well. I don't know how to judge the artwork, but I like it. Okay, I will quit rambling on -- everyone has talked and talked about this, but I wanted to have my say too...