I remember fondly the last Chinese American colleague of my military career. She was my supervisor: a very kind, patient, conscientious, hardworking, and highly competent person. It was she who explained to me the difference between American Born Chinese (ABC), and Chinese who had just immigrated and were, therefore, Fresh Off the Boat (FOB).
The memory of my first Chinese American colleague is less pleasant. Not that it was his fault; the blame was entirely mine. He, too, was conscientious, hardworking, and highly competent. Perhaps because we were officers of the same rank, I did not consider him as Chinese, but as a fellow soldier. That, of course, is how the Army expected us to think of one another. However, our shared identity caused me to forget the identity he had carried since before his birth. Then one day I told a tasteless joke which had as its object a Chinese stereotype, and my colleague heard it. He was angry, I was embarrassed, and our relationship was never the same. That was one of a lengthy series of lessons that taught me not only to guard my tongue, but to adjust the heart attitudes that shape what comes from my tongue.
Gene Luen Yang has carried that life lesson even further with his graphic novel, American Born Chinese, a masterful insider view of what it means to be part of an ancient culture transplanted to an alien setting.
To be honest, I am not in the habit of reading graphic novels, and would not have read this one had there been no compelling incentive. Yet it just so happens that one of my daughters has a special man in her life who is American Born Chinese. Since he is important to her, he is important to me. He is a fan of Yang, and especially of this novel, which resonates with his own life story. So, wanting to know this person who captured my daughter’s interest, I embarked on a quest to learn something about him through one of his favorite artists.
It was an entirely rewarding experience. Yang is a masterful comic artist and storyteller, able to use his artwork to get points across more effectively than with the written word alone. That is the power of graphic novels. Who wouldn’t prefer to look at a page of colorful pictures rather than a page full of text? Truly a picture is worth a thousand words, and Yang knows how to maximize the effectiveness of his pictures. His art includes traditional Chinese elements, which he fuses nicely with contemporary cartoon styles from both the West and the East. The overall effect is a seamless fusion of images that carry the novel forward at just the right pace. Yang’s story, or stories, convey the same effect: weaving elements from the East and West into something resembling a textual fugue. American Born Chinese is actually a compilation of three distinct stories, each developing the same theme.
Yang draws his first story line from the old Chinese tale of the Monkey King. Although Buddhist in origin, Yang adjusts the story to reflect his own Christian worldview. The adjustments work very nicely. Those familiar with the Bible will recognize the Christian elements, or at least some of them; there are subtle references which only the serious biblical scholar will catch. In this creative license, Yang not only reminds us that Christianity is just as much part of the overall Chinese story as Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam, but also something that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew very well: myth is a filter of reality. In this case, if, as the Bible states, there is revelation of the Creator in every culture, then Yang has provided an ancient Chinese example of that phenomenon.
This example of mythic reality introduces us to the central theme of Yang’s story: being true to one’s identity. The other two story lines carry that theme forward with increasing amplification. The second story concerns Jin, a Chinese American teen trying to cope with the reality of being one of only three Asians in his school. Where the story of the Monkey King is mythically delightful, Jin’s story is awkward and comical, just like the typical story of any young American teen. Up to a point, that is: the point where Jin decides his Chinese heritage is a liability. That’s when the story bends away from the comical and toward the tragic.
The third story line is hardly tragic, but the most difficult of the three to receive. For all their quirks, we like the Monkey King and Jin, but we have a hard time finding anything to like about Chin-kee, the obnoxious Chinese cousin of Danny, an American high school student. Yang’s presentation of Chin-kee may be somewhat cathartic in that this character embodies all the negative stereotypes with which Americans have painted Chinese. It is painful to endure. Chinese and other Asian readers no doubt recall incidents in which such stereotypes colored their lives; non-Asians reading with a sensitive eye may recall times (as I did) when their insensitivity and ignorance caused offense. Yet even here, being true to one’s identity is the core of the story.
One might ask, what do negative racial and cultural stereotypes have to do with true identity? The answer comes in the way captivating the author resolves the crises in each of his story lines. Not only does he guide his characters through their individual identity crises, he makes provision for multi-generational solutions that point all of his characters toward a future and a hope. With a sudden twist or two, the three stories become one story, and we close the book having learned something far more profound than we believed possible in a graphic novel: we learn what it means to be human.
That, ultimately, is the foundation of Gene Luen Yang’s creation. The struggles of being American Born Chinese are the vehicle for this life lesson applicable to us all. Eventually, we must learn to be true to ourselves, but what exactly are we? That question should provoke us into a search for our true identity that will lead us back to the One who made us. Some may question what constitutes a valid identity, but that is a question I am not qualified to answer. Ultimately, only the Creator can answer it. What I do know – and what American Born Chinese has helped me remember – is that we share this identity called human. If we can all meet there as our starting point, then maybe we can find a way to cooperate in figuring out the rest of life’s mysteries.