Saturday, September 1, 2007

Looking To The Stars - American Born Chinese, A Review

One of the great ironies of life in post-World War II America is that we – a nation founded by immigrants on the ideal of being a haven for outcasts and outsiders from around the world - have become so insular and cliquish. We fought in The Great War because of the arrogant Nationalism of other nations only to become as arrogant and exclusive as “The Good Germans” of three generations past.

Of course The United States has always had a love/hate relationship with immigrants. They were welcome as cheap labor and soldiers but on-the-whole despised by the families of the original colonists for being different. Even today, while we no longer have “Irish Need Not Apply” or similar signs, immigrants are a frequent scapegoat for all manner of social ills from rising health-care costs to gang violence.

I mention this because this theme of outsiders and subtle racism in the the so-called Land Of The Free is the heart of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. Released last year, American Born Chinese is picking up awards like seashells on the beach and having finally managed to get a copy, I can see why.

The book relates three stories, seemingly unconnected but ultimately linked. In the first, we are told a tale of The Monkey King (Sun Wukong) and how he rebelled against his role after being cast out of a celestial party because he was a monkey and did not wear shoes. A shape-changer and student of Kung Fu, he tries to reinvent himself as The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven only to find himself trapped under a mountain of rubble for his arrogance.

Yang’s artistry becomes apparent in this section, for his cartoony style of art effectively portrays the complexities of Chinese mythology in an surprisingly simple way. It is this section that delivers one of the book’s many morals – there is no shame in being yourself.

In the second tale, written in the style of an American sitcom, a boy named Danny of indeterminable Caucasian background is tormented by a visit from his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is every single Chinese stereotype made flesh. He is buck-toothed. He dresses in nothing but traditional Chinese garb. He speaks English with a “me so solly” accent. He carries fried cat in his lunch box. And his reaction when faced with a beautiful woman, “with bountiful Amellican bosom”, is to drool while fantasizing out-loud about binding her feet and her bearing his children.

This section is so vividly portrayed we hardly need the “HA HA HA”s that fill the bottom of every panel in which Chin-Kee does something stereotypically foreign. We can hear the canned laughter just fine in our own heads while our hearts recoil in horror at the grotesque racist parody that is Chin-Kee.

The third story, and the true heart of the book, tells the tale of Jin Wang – an American Born Chinese, i.e. the son of Chinese immigrant parents. Jin’s troubles begin when his parents move to a nameless suburb. Used to the Chinatown of San Fransisco, Jin quickly finds himself an outcast – the only Asian boy in the entire class – and an immediate victim of racism on every front. There is the hostile racism of his classmates, who order him to stay away from their dogs for fear he will make a snack out of their pets and the ignorance-born but polite racism of his teacher, who tells her students that she’s sure Jin and his family stopped doing that kind of thing when they became Americans. This after Jin's polite note that he is from San Francisco and not mainland China.

Jin’s friendless existence ends when an actual Chinese immigrant, Wei-Chen Sun, comes to his school from Taiwan. Filled with a desire to beat him up at first, Jin and Wei-Chen become best friends after bonding through a love of Transformer robots. The two go on to discover girls together, with Wei-Chen setting up Jin’s first date with dream-girl Amelia Harris.

As a white guy from Texas, I can’t truly appreciate what it is like to live in a society that treats me differently because of the color of my skin. I can imagine quite well and I can sympathize with such a character as Jin – but I can’t say that I know from direct experience what Jin is feeling like in the early parts of the book. But it is in this middle section and the scenes in which the shy Jin explains why the act of talking to a girl he likes is tantamount to suicide that nearly any man who went to an American public junior high school can relate to Jin.

I remember well the feeling that every girl was a goddess whose attentions you were beneath and how one smile could keep you feeling warm for the rest of the day and Yang perfectly captures the uncertainty of pre-teen life in this moment. He also draws a perfect parallel between the racism Jin experiences and the cliquishness that dominates adolescence when, after his first date, Jin is taken aside by a classmate and told not to ask Amelia out again because “she has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with”. Whether the statement is made because of Jin’s race or his lowly position on the social totem pole is inconsequential – the point is that despite everything, Jin does not fit in.

To say any more about this book would be to deprive you of the pleasure of reading one of the best graphic novels in recent memory. American Born Chinese is a refreshing pleasure on every level. Artistically, Thematically and Spiritually the book is a well balanced tale and a worthy addition to any graphic novel library.

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