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american born chinese

11 april 2012

American Born Chinese, the Printz-Award-winning graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, takes a sharp, outrageous look at growing up American.

American Born Chinese is one of those comic books that, unlike most of the genre, is really pretty comic. There are many laugh-, or at least chuckle-out-loud moments. And they're skillfully evoked. Much of the book is cast as an embarrassingly unfunny TV show at which an imagined audience laughs hysterically, and of course those parts are pretty serious. But then, during the serious bits, Yang will toss in a throwaway line or an afterthought that cracks you up. That's the way "comic humor," so often an oxymoron, can work best.

Three heroes alternate stories in American Born Chinese: young Jin Wang, who has the title attribute (his parents are Chinese professionals who've met in graduate school in California); Danny, a high-school age Anglo-American; and a monkey-king god known as The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. At first it's hard to imagine what these three could possibly have to do with one another. It seems as if Jin Wang's story should be central; it is the most realistic, and it follows a typical pattern of a "Generation 1.5" kid growing up American, but with a distinct hyphen in his identity. Meanwhile, the Great Sage is angering the immortal Chinese gods, and Danny has to cope with repeated visits from his hideously stereotypical Chinese cousin "Chin-Kee," who seems to be a nightmarish sitcom character, or perhaps only a literal nightmare.

At the heart of their conjunction is a preoccupation with being oneself. But when ambition, immigration, innovation, and any number of other competing -tions come into conflict, what is "oneself"? Is Jin Wang Chinese or American? Is the Great Sage a god or a monkey?

There are no easy answers. That may be the keenest difference between children's literature and Young Adult literature. In books for children, no matter what the dangers and the terrors, there's some device (the Silver Shoes!) that can set everything right again at the end. Children go on being children, in other words. But Young Adults grow up into just adults, a more equivocal and unsettled state of existence.

So it is with Jin Wang. In the course of the converging plots of American Born Chinese, Jin Wang becomes Danny, and then has to figure out how to negotiate a precarious identity. Such negotiation, he learns, is a process that never stops. It doesn't even stop if you are a monkey god and you have exhausted the disciplines of Kung Fu. Life just lays out new territory at every turn.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. 2006. New York: Square Fish [Macmillan], 2009.