American Born Chinese
Imagine: you're one of a tiny handful of Asians (and by tiny we mean three) in a mostly white, suburban, American junior high school. All you want in life is to get with your crush, the super-popular, hot blonde, but you're nothing special as far as teenagers go. Plus, you're not just Asian; you're Chinese. Cue: a stream of classic Chinese stereotypes. Okay sure, technically you're Chinese-American, but do you think anyone at school, never mind Miss Hottie, understands or cares about that distinction?
Gene Yang's betting that, even if you don't understand, you still might care about what Jin, his teenaged boy protagonist, is all about. After all, what Jin goes through isn't all that different from what a lot of teenagers, especially those who feel like they're misfits, go through.
And if that doesn't grab you, how about the fact that American Born Chinese is a cool comic book (sorry, we mean graphic novel)—so cool, in fact, that it's won Yang a bunch of awards, including the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award (an American Library Association award, given to the best book for teens) and the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) for Great Graphic Novel award. Oh, and if you think the book is just for kids, think again: it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award too—the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the award, we might add.
But we know you're not just about the awards. You're way deeper than that. So here's the deal: this book manages to do more than show the life of a typical Chinese American teen boy. It incorporates the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King and parades through a bunch of classic stereotypes about Chinese people at the same time. And all to critical and humorous effect. That's not easy to do folks, and takes some serious storytelling skills, something Yang's got in spades in addition to his mad artistic talent.
Which is why American Born Chinese is a total favorite of high school English teachers. It's the holy grail of required English reading: it's relatable, current, deep and culturally diverse. And—of course—it's a fun read, too. What more could you ask for?
Why Should I Care?
Unless you somehow managed to skip those awkward, painful years spent as a teenager in school, there's just no way that you can't relate to Jin Wang's struggles to fit in at mostly-white junior high school. All right, maybe there is a way not to relate to Jin, but you would kind of need to try not to relate to him because, after all, who hasn't felt the pressure of needing to fit in?
If you're not convinced, here's another way to look at American Born Chinese: It's basically a John Hughes movie made into a comic, only instead of a white, teenaged misfit at the center, you get a Chinese American teenaged misfit.
Of course, that doesn't mean that somehow Jin's race doesn't matter. It completely matters because it's his racial background and the cultural stereotypes that surround that background which turn him into a social outcast at his school. Whereas a John Hughes character has to deal with differences in class or taste in clothing, Jin has to deal with something he really can't do anything about: his biological makeup.
And deal he does. Jin's journey through the novel intersects with the story of the Monkey King, a classic Chinese folk tale, as well as encounters with the thing he fears the most—his Chineseness—in order to show us how it is possible to survive the teen years and still turn out the better for it.
Jin's story isn't exactly pretty or simple. It is, however, deep and—we think—pretty inspirational in the end. Plus, can you really say no to a comic book? Yeah—we didn't think so.