By Michael Gianfrancesco
The brainchild and signature book of author/artist Gene Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the graphic novel American Born Chinese has won its share of awards. For students and educators alike, the novel offers a wonderful story that touches on many common themes, motifs and content areas while providing students opportunities to engage in critical analysis and self-examination within your classroom.
The novel contains three stories that begin separately, intertwine throughout the book, and eventually converge at the end, bringing all the themes together into a single resolution.
The first story introduced is that of the Monkey King of Chinese legend and his quest for respect and humility.
The second is about a young boy named Jin Wang and his struggle to be accepted as one of few Asian students in a primarily white school.
And the third is a pseudo sitcom featuring Danny and his (offensive) Chinese stereotype of a cousin Chin-Kee.
Without giving too much away, American Born Chinese finds its way to a compromise for all the characters and offers surprising twists, particularly in terms of how the three stories unite into one in the last chapter. Each story has its own compelling characters, a focus on the ups and downs of culture traditions, and a need to forge a path that includes, but is not dominated by, familial heritage.
The characters learn that, while we are at least partially defined by our cultural traditions and upbringing, it just one component of who we are. Likewise, we cannot ignore our heritage, no matter how much we wish we could. The characters are forced to find a balance between their personal desires to be like everyone else and their Chinese ancestries, or, in the case of the Monkey King, his species.
The book is colorfully illustrated and draws on religious and spiritual iconography, particularly when following the Monkey King’s story. Though sometimes jarring, the transitions between each individual tale are well crafted and readers will find themselves moving quickly from one page to the next.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Educators will want to pace their students to ensure that they are spending as much time analyzing the artwork and the subtleties of what Yang is “showing” as they are on reading what he is “telling.” Some potential uses in the classroom include:
- Talk about the themes of heritage and culture. Have your students create minicomics or short stories that explode a cultural moment in their lives. Have them share them with the class and create a sort of “international week” out of the unit.
- The theme of identity is very strong in this novel. In particular, the book talks about changing the way you look in order to either set yourself apart or to hide within a sea of identical faces. This could be a part of a sociology unit where the class discusses what happens when you cannot hide how you look (unlike the characters in the novel who literally change their physical appearances) and must face the potential discrimination on the basis of the way you look.
- The character of Chin-Kee is an offensive stereotype of someone of Chinese descent. This can spawn conversation about parody and the nature of exposing ignorance through the use of a stereotyped character or situation. Have them debate the appropriateness of Chin-Kee and discuss how and why this character exists in the novel and what Yang is trying to say through his presence.
- Have students research the Chinese Gods featured in the novel or, alternately, you can assign other ancient mythological deities (Norse, Roman, Greek, Egyptian) and have students create a story or comic featuring characters derived from those sources and include how they might interact with modern humans.
- Pair this text with YA novels like the Percy Jackson series that utilize ancient gods in a similar manner. Have students compare/contrast the authors’ choices in each work.
American Born Chinese is a relevant and poignant story about personal understanding that does not pull its punches when it comes to taking on racist concepts levied against those of Asian descent. The novel exposes these stereotypes and forces the reader to confront their own conscious or unconscious prejudices, while at the same time offering an empathetic view for anyone who might feel that their culture has made them a target.
Though it may seem simple in nature, Gene Yang’s expertly crafted graphic novel takes on these complicated themes masterfully and offers a thought provoking narrative which will certainly offer you and your students plenty to talk about.
All images (c) Gene Luen Yang.