Study Guide

American Born Chinese Writing Style

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Writing Style

Dialogical; Concise; Understated

These three words really only work together. Why? Because the book is a graphic novel and dialogue takes up the majority of the writing. And when we're not reading dialogue, we're hearing from a concise and understated voiceover narrator who, under the limitations of space, really can't have that many words in any given frame.

But just because space becomes a practical issue doesn't mean there isn't a larger meaning to these writing styles. Ask your English teacher: there's always a larger meaning. In this case, the dialogical and concise style work with Yang's pictures to create gaps in understanding that you—lucky you—get to fill in with your inferences.

Take the last four pages of the book for example: Jin and Wei-Chen are at a booth in a restaurant drinking pearl (or boba) milk tea. They don't say much to each other. In fact, out of the last twelve frames, five of the frames have no words at all (these pictures show Wei-Chen considering Jin's apology). The frames that do have dialogue don't have much dialogue (no more than a short sentence). Then Wei-Chen launches into a short critique of the terrible pearl milk tea at the restaurant, and he tells Jin that he'll take him to a better place in the future. To which Jin responds: "'That'd be cool'" (9.124).

Yang doesn't tell you directly that the boys have made up, but you can figure it out because of the way the dialogue between the two builds from near silence to Wei-Chen's takedown of the pearl milk tea. The boys don't emote to each other. They talk to each other in the way that non-talkative people sometimes do: they leave important things unspoken, understated and assumed.

What's the total effect? The picture. At the end, it's all about the picture. All those understated words lead to the final drawing—of Jin and Wei-Chen (seen from a distance), laughing it up inside the restaurant with no word bubbles or voiceovers (9.125). We can't think of a more fitting ending to a graphic novel.

Drawing Style: Extreme, Realistic, Cartoonish


This style really surfaces with the Monkey King chapters. Why? Because Monkey is an extreme personality. He can go from super-mellow (like when he's at home, chilling with his monkeys, at the beginning of the book) to super-violent (like when he decides to beat up a bunch of those racist deities who exclude him from the party in the heavens).

Yang's drawing style matches Monkey's dramatic mood swings. So the beginning panels—when Monkey's confident and comfortable at home—show close-ups of flowers and fruit (1.3-1.4). Yang uses curved lines to give a sense of softness to Monkey and his kingdom, and the frames of the panels are regular squares or rectangles, all of which gives a feeling of peace and order.

But when Monkey gets mad at the guard who bounces him from the party, Yang's drawings all of a sudden go berserk. Bodies fill and even exceed the panels, while sound effects are written out—"SMAK!" "KRASH!" (1.39-1.44). Monkey's face isn't cute and round anymore; now it's harsh, more angular. More importantly, the frames themselves are large and boldly irregular, like one frame got hacked in half by an axe (1.40-1.43).

So think of Yang's drawing style as a mirror for Monkey's extreme character… something that Yang repeats with his other characters too…


When we're in Jin's world, this is the style that rules his chapters. Not that this comic book necessarily looks realistic (everything is still a cartoon), but Jin's world is simply drawn.

His suburban house is just a regular house (2.7); his car looks just like a regular car (2.1-2.2, 2.6-2.7); there aren't any crazy colors and stylized fonts. All of this tells us that Jin is just a simple kid living in the (more or less) real world.

Nothing gets exaggerated except when dramatic moments occur like, for instance, when he kisses Suzy. Then, all of a sudden, the panels literally crackle with electricity and Yang uses those visual effects like those that appear during Monkey's violent scenes (8.108-8.110).

But those visual effects don't last long, especially at the end of the book. At the end, when Jin becomes a humbled, more reflective version of himself, the panels calm down and reflect the calm emptiness of a suburb at night.

Consider the part when Chin-Kee and Danny return to their real selves, and become the Monkey King and Jin. At this point, all you see are stars, the night sky, a building, and just Monkey and Jin in their original forms (9.46-9.47). There's nothing crazy or exciting, which is how it should be because Monkey and Jin are all about reveling in their ordinary, humble, real selves at the end.


How do you draw a character like Chin-Kee, who's supposed to represent a bunch of ridiculous (and offensive) stereotypes of Chinese people? If you're Yang, the go-to strategy is to make Chin-Kee into a total caricature, to make him super-ridiculous, especially in contrast to Danny's super-typical, suburban, high school world.

For example, when Chin-Kee first enters Danny's story, he doesn't even have to appear yet to turn Danny's face into an exaggerated mess. Danny goes from being simply drawn to comically anxious, with super-round eyes and huge, gritted teeth (3.10-3.13). It's like all of a sudden we've walked onto a TV-comedy set.

Then when Chin-Kee actually does appear, he fills up an entire panel and page, dwarfing Danny's father in the background, who by the way happens to be hidden by gigantic Chinese take-out boxes doubling as Chin-Kee's luggage (3.17).

Add to that a huge, bold, upper-case "HARRO AMELLICA!" in a speech bubble coming from Chin-Kee's giant, buck-tooth grin, and you've got the sense of a three-ring circus, which just about sums up Chin-Kee's effect on Danny's life.

Why do this? Why make Chin-Kee so exaggerated? Think of it this way: the more exaggerated Chin-Kee is, the more unbelievable a character he becomes. Which is kind of the point of Chin-Kee and the stereotypes he embodies: they aren't even close to being real. They are the fantastical products of an overheated, paranoid, Western view of Chinese people. And that's an idea we're guessing Yang really doesn't want you to miss while you read his book.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...