Study Guide

American Born Chinese Transformers

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It's a toy… No, wait… It's a symbol. Transformers—more than meets the eye.

These aren't just cool toys from the 1980s—nope, they also symbolize Jin's most basic desire: to transform into something different than what he is in real life (a typical Chinese American kid). When he's a little kid at the Chinese herbalist's shop, this desire is still kind of unformed. He just knows that he "want[s] to be a Transformer! [….] A robot in disguise [….] More than meets the eye!'" (2.20-2.22)—and we, as readers, get a subtle hint at what's to come.

As Jin grows older, the desire to transform becomes a lot more serious: it's a way for him to escape his life as an Asian "Other" and become white. He gets to live out that wish briefly when he becomes Danny, the white high schooler on the verge of breaking into the in crowd.

Of course, that transformation doesn't last because it's not the kind of transformation that's real—it's a fantasy and a dangerous one at that. For example, Jin as Danny ends up beating his "chinky" cousin "Chin-Kee" so badly that he pops Chin-Kee's head off (9.39-9.40). To try and maintain the fantasy of whiteness, Danny/Jin literally kills off Chin-Kee.

We don't know about you, but generally speaking, killing off your blood relative (or anyone for that matter) really isn't cool. It's a good thing Chin-Kee isn't real either, since he's just Monkey in disguise.

What is real, as far as transformations go, is the kind of change Jin undergoes when Monkey confronts him with the damages Jin's done to Wei-Chen. Jin matures and waits patiently for a month to meet Wei-Chen in order to apologize for breaking their friendship (9.103, 9.117).

Wei-Chen also has a thing for transformation, as symbolized by his totally cool robot-monkey. But in Wei-Chen's case, the transforming robot-monkey toy is a reminder of his true self (a monkey) and his duty to his dad the Monkey King and Tze-Yo-Tzuh to remain virtuous (2.74-2.78).

For Wei-Chen to honor his transforming robot-monkey, he's supposed to stay the same and just be sweet, kind, honest Wei-Chen. Which is what he becomes again, after a brief stint as a Chinese gangster (9.109-9.122).

So what's the larger point? Transformers may be more than meets the eye, but they can't hold a candle to becoming comfortable with your original self. Of course, the only way the boys learn that is to go through the magic of transformation first.

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