Study Guide

American Born Chinese Narrator Point of View

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Narrator Point of View

Third Person (Objective) and First Person (Central Narrator)

Third Person (Objective)

American Born Chinese is kind of like watching a movie or a TV series—at least, for two-thirds of it. (We'll get to the other third shortly.) Both the story lines for the Monkey King and for Danny come from a distant narrator who's simultaneously above the fray and yet also able to give you close-up views of the characters.

The Monkey King

How? Consider it the nature of a graphic novel. On one hand, you've got—in the Monkey King sections—an actual narrator giving you voice-overs of what's going on around the Monkey King or in his head. But even though the narrator can tell you that the Monkey King "stayed awake for the rest of the night thinking of ways to get rid of [his monkey fur smell]" (1.47), the narrator doesn't judge. At least, not verbally.

The narrator lets the pictures do the talking. For example, when Tze-Yo-Tzuh tells Monkey to stop being such a fool, the picture shows a close-up of Monkey dumbly considering Tze-Yo-Tzuh's words. You might think that because Monkey seems properly awed by Tze-Yo-Tzuh's powers, he'll totally follow what Tze-Yo-Tzuh asks him to do. But no cigar. The next picture shows the exact same close-up, only Monkey's face is angry and determined, both of which highlight his stubborness as he states: "'I don't care who you say you are, old man. I can still take you'" (4.83).

What an idiot, right? But the narrator doesn't tell you that. It's the next picture—of a distant Tze-Yo-Tzuh sighing (4.84) that confirms the idea that Monkey is completely immature. There's no judge-y voice telling you how to think or feel, just the silent zooms in and out of the picture frames that guide you to these general conclusions about Monkey's character. Neat, huh?

Danny and Chin-Kee

In Danny's story, the narrator is even more objective because the narrator doesn't even bother to speak. In fact, you might say that there isn't a narrator at all; it's just the view given to you by each picture. That's why Danny's storyline becomes all about the action and dialogue in each frame.

Each chapter opens with a picture of the setting: Danny's house, Oliphant High, the library. From there, the pictures lead us right into a scene and the scene just unrolls before our eyes—like a TV screen. Just like the Monkey King parts, these scenes don't carry a judge-y feeling exactly because there isn't anyone telling us how to feel and think. In fact, our view of the picture tends to be at mid-distance: the picture doesn't zoom in or out much, and mostly just stays in the middle letting you see everything unfold.

Case in point: When Danny walks into the library and sees Chin-Kee performing "She Bangs" on the table, we get to see both Chin-Kee dancing and singing gleefully while Danny's face, still in the frame, shows his bugged-out eyes and gritted teeth (9.5). We get why Danny cringes, but since both characters are in the frame, no perspective is favored exactly. You can't tell exactly who the narrator judges or favors, which invites us to grapple with the discomfort we may feel in response to both characters.

The whole TV feel of Danny's story also makes it easier to see how Jin's transformation into Danny is kind of like an entrance into Jin's own personal lalaland.

First Person (Central Narrator)

And then there's Jin. How do we know that Jin is really our main guy for the whole book? Even though his story is squashed between the story of the Monkey King and Danny/Chin-Kee, his story is the only one told in the first person, from Jin's perspective. That means we get the whole deal—how he thinks, how he feels, what he does—all of which ultimately make Jin a sympathetic character.

Plus the book ends with his story. It moves from the third person objective narration of Danny's story into Jin's first-person voice. This is most evident when Jin tells us how many days (over a month) he sat at 490 Bakery Cafe waiting for Wei-Chen to show up (9.103). He's letting us know how much he's changed and how committed he is to making amends for his misdeeds. And we feel it more because it's in the first-person, which makes it much easier for us to experience Jin's remorse and believe in his transformation.

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