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Giving Chin-Kee A Chance: Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese

Apparently, everyone got the memo on American Born Chinese before I did. Published in 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel is flush with accolades: a National Book Award Finalist, winner of the Michael L Printz Award, and a “top” pick of multiple publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly.  Where was I?  What was I doing in 2006 that I missed its release?  How had I overlooked this amazing graphic novel, while somehow convincing myself to read the first installment of a melodramatic teen-vampire-romance-novel-series that shall go unnamed.  I hang my head in shame.

To be honest, my first interaction with American Born Chinese was quick and bristly.  My poetry professor had laid out an assortment of poetry and prose collections from which we were to choose one book to present to the class.  The brightly-colored cover, which depicts a young Chinese boy holding a toy robot, immediately caught my eye.  After months of immersion in the hands of some of my favorite literary heavyweights–James Joyce, Phillip Roth, Edward P. Jones–I was open to something lighter–something that I thought would be more…manageable.  So I picked up the bright yellow book, was impressed by its weight, and then opened to the first page, where I  was confronted with a striking image of a seemingly overpopulated intergalactic world filled with wise Asian elders, women shyly hiding their faces behind paper fans, and one random, broad-shouldered canary warrior.  I noted some shades of stereotypes (i.e. the wise monk, the geisha) but was curious and strangely entertained.  I continued to flip on…

The next image that appeared was that of a buck-toothed Asian Warrior with a title above his head that read: Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee!

Wait a minute.  Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee?  I turned the page.  There he was.  An unapologetic depiction of one of the most notorious Asian stereotypes: the kung-fu warrior–his hands folded together in prayer, delight emanating from his “chinky” eyes, a long braid of black hair whipping down his back.  And despite the fact that his storyline takes place in contemporary times, he was draped in a silk Hanzuang robe with matching hanfu shoes.  He bounced from one foot to the other yelling, “HARRO AMELLICA!” I started to flip through the pages more rapidly. Chin-Kee was good at math–an over-zealous classroom participant. He indeed practiced kung-fu. And if he knew the distinction between the phonemes L and R, he sure couldn’t prove it.

A bit confused, I set the book down and moved on to some of the other selections our poetry professor had provided.  But weeks later, itching with curiosity, I revisited American Born Chinese — this time, giving it a careful, cover-to-cover reading (yes, admittedly, the way literature should be read before it’s judged.)  And by novel’s end, I was warmed and delighted… not only by the creativity, the pathos exhibited through both dialogue and graphics, but Yang’s ability to create a rich, complex tale of that addressed some of the most common but rarely discussed struggles for children in the Asian American diaspora.  Through school-aged protagonist Jin and his friend, Wei-Chun, Yang delivers a message of self-acceptance; of defeating your own, often exaggerated self-perceptions of cultural difference;  and the importance of building community based on shared cultural experiences.  Its message was once that would likely translate across minority cultures — and in the minds of anyone who has felt rejected for being different.

And moreover, I was hugely impressed by how the author uses the universal knowledge embodied in stereotypes to his advantage– interweaving the lives of his recognizable, relatable, and accessible figures to create a magical, richly-layered, and inventive tale–the intersection of the Asian nerd, his “more-Asian” friend, and the kung-fu warrior.  Oh, and there’s a Monkey King, too.

Now, I realize I’m speaking in broad generalities — “interweaving lives, richly-layered tale, message of acceptance” blah blah blah…. but I don’t want to give the book away because I do hope you’ll read it, (and I suspect any summary I attempt to provide will be unclear and ultimately fall short.)  So I’ll just end by saying that American Born Chinese is well worth the read.  Once you fly through it, you’ll likely read it again, discovering new and surprising wisdom each time, if you just give Chin-Kee a chance.

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