How to be an American Born Chinese

Gene Leun Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese illustrates that Asians perpetuate forever foreigner symptoms in America. Jin Wang, the protagonist in the story, demonstrates that he is unable to create an identity that embodies both Asian and American equally. When he tries to accept his inherent Asian values, he is shunned by the people around him; when he tries to encompass his “whiteness”, he is reminded that he can never be equivalent to white people no matter how hard he strives to fit in. Chin-kee, Danny’s cousin, plays the role of a stereotypical Chinese character to remind Danny that he needs to learn to embrace his race as part of his identity. American Born Chinese explores the inequality Asians face in terms of race and cultural citizenship through the medium of a comic book.

Graphic novels are effective mediums to deliver messages because readers can control their own pace without feeling pressured to understand everything at first glance, unlike TV shows and movies which decide the pace for the viewers. They also allow the readers to view past, present and the future side-by-side, which makes it convenient for readers to refer back to specific parts that they want to revisit. Yang’s work is primarily intended for white audience who are unfamiliar with Asian cultures. One of the first scenes in ABC is when Jin’s new classroom teacher introduces him to the rest of the students. Not only does the she mispronounce Jin’s name, but a classmate also shouts a racist remark, which both indicate that white people regard Asians with contempt.abcpic2

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Jin Wang attempts to assimilate himself into the white community by mimicking white people’s lifestyle. A few days after he transfers to his new elementary school, a boy named Wei-Chin from Taiwan transfers to the same class. Wei-Chin approaches Jin and speaks Chinese to him because he believes that Jin would be welcoming of the similar heritage. Contrary to his belief, Jin mocks Wei-Chin and retorts that they should speak English because they are in America. This interaction between them shows that Jin values cultural citizenship; because he wants to fit in America, he relinquishes the Asian part of him and tries to dissociate himself from speaking Chinese. In this section, we can also see that Jin is eating a sandwich instead of dumplings (which he used to), in order to further conform to the “white” norm.

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Despite the characters’ young age, there is clearly a hegemonic structure between the white people and Asians; in particular, this imbalance of power is depicted between Jin and Greg. Jin is unable to show resistance or express his agency to his classmate. Greg advises Jin not to date Amelia because Greg believes that Amelia “has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with” (179), which insinuates that Jin is not worthy. As Greg protects Amelia, he not only makes it clear that there is a line between the two of them but also brings out Jin’s insecurity regarding his masculinity and his ability to interact with the dominant power. Jin feels suppressed by the dominant force, and as a result, transforms into a white boy named Danny to uplift his confidence.

abcpic4Chin-kee is a symbolic figure in American Born Chinese that maintains a sturdy stance on Asian cultural aspects by perpetuating Orientalism through his name, accent, and behaviour. In fact, his name, “Chin-kee” bears resemblance to the word “chinky”, a derogatory term for a Chinese person. In addition, Yang helps the readers imagine Chin-kee’s accent by distorting English words phonetically to emulate Chinese accent: he spells “Hello America” as “Harro Amellica” to exaggerate Chin-kee’s inability to distinguish the ‘l’ and the ‘r’ sounds. He also demonstrates stereotypical all-rounded smartness by eagerly participating in English, biology, history and chemistry when he attends Danny’s classes. Consequently, the teachers advise other students to be more like Chin-kee to actively engage in the class material. Without considering other aspects of his character, the teachers simply regard Chin-kee as an academically-driven student. All these scenarios are instances of orientalism and reminds Danny that even though he is able to change his physical features, he cannot leave his cultural aspects of him behind.

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One of the most interesting parts of the graphic novel is the final interaction between Wei-Chin and Jin Wang. In this scene, Wei-Chin speaks English while Jin responds back in English. This scene completely contrasts the first time Jin and Wei-Chin back in elementary school when Jin forced Wei-Chin to speak English; now they are drinking milk tea, a conventionally Asian beverage, while conversing in two languages, which supports that Jin is more accepting of the Chinese culture now than before.

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Gene Yang states that his graphic novel is about “creating an identity for yourself in America” during his interview. He demonstrates this notion with the protagonist Jin, who is able to make changes to his personality and how he perceives others, but ultimately he is not able to create your identity.

 

Works Cited

[1] “American Born Chinese.” Gene Luen Yang. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[2] “American Born Chinese” Youtube, uploaded by ShareAmerica 04 Jun 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYCZqt5WSOM

[3] “Why comics belong in the classroom | Gene Yang | TedXManhattanBeach” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks 02 Dec 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oz4JqAJbxj0

[4] Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: Square Fish, 2010. Print.

 

 

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