Study Guide

American Born Chinese Foreigness and "The Other"

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Foreigness and "The Other"


We've got to admit it—even though the Monkey King is kind of an abusive arrogant jerk, we feel bad for him, especially when he returns home from the party he crashes. His house is lonely and dark, and as he enters, it's the first time he really notices his body odor. In other words, it's the first time he notices how foreign or Other he appears to the gods and goddesses… and it feels a lot like being picked last in gym class.


When Jin lives in Chinatown, he's anything but Other. All his friends look like him, plus they like the same Saturday morning cartoons and toys (clearly, the most important thing). These panels are a really strong contrast to the ones of Jin in his new suburban school. In his Chinatown home, all the kids play together harmoniously and there's none of the infighting and jockeying for power that Jin experiences at his suburban school.


Jin's first day at school is a total nightmare because his teacher and new classmates basically assume that he's from China even though he's from San Francisco. It's got to be frustrating when even the teacher can't get your background info right. This scene, by the way, makes Jin's defensive loner attitude completely understandable. Who can he trust when no one even recognizes that he's American too?

[3.1; 3.17-3.26]

Chin-Kee is the definition of the foreignr with his accented English, his lewd suggestions to Danny's friend Melanie, and his Fu Manchu appearance. In fact, we're pretty sure that if Chin-Kee were visiting China, he would still be foreign. Why? Because we're betting that no one is like Chin-Kee, no matter where you go. He's an outdated fantasy of 1930s popular American culture. But he's still scary—especially to Danny, who's worried he'll seem like the Other just by being related to Chin-Kee.


We're just going to point out here that Mabel, the blonde with a ton of makeup on in Mr. Graham's class, looks a lot more Other than anyone else in the book. Yang completely exaggerates her features so that she resembles the live animals her mom's company Babelene Cosmetics has donated to the bio class, and by contrast, the Asian kids blend right in with the rest of the students.


Wei-Chen and Suzy are teasing Jin about his crush on Amelia, which makes Jin feel bad. But all three of them really feel awful when Timmy passes by and says to his friend, "'Hey, I chink it's getting a little nippy out there'" and his friend responds, "'You're right! I'm getting' gook bumps!'" Not cool, right? You've got to wonder: what can Wei-Chen, Jin and Suzy do to deal with that kind of everyday bullying? Note, by the way, a total absence of school administrators and teachers in all these bullying scenes…


This is the part where Jin ignores Amelia after he sees her with Greg. After he walks away, Greg says: "'See what I mean? He's a nice guy, but he's kind of a geek. I mean what's with the hair?'" Clearly Greg's not a really nice guy, but what we're stuck on is his comment about Jin's hair—it ends up being ironic and kind of funny because he doesn't realize that Jin's hair is a complete copy of his own hairstyle (only without the blond color). Greg can't recognize a part of himself on someone else because he thinks Jin's so different than he is.


It's rare for this book to feature a girl talking deeply, so it's cool that Yang includes this scene with Suzy. She's telling Jin about how she felt excluded at a party given by an old Japanese school classmate of hers, and then she links her sadness about the party to Timmy's cruelty. Suzy expresses with more honesty than anyone else in the book just how hard it is to deal with the kind of name-calling Jin and the rest of them experience at school everyday. But we're also curious about something else: Why can't Jin—even Wei-Chen—state as clearly and as honestly as Suzy does how they feel about being excluded from mainstream American life? Why does Yang give Suzy these lines instead of the guys?


Ah… the Chin-Kee/William Hung/Ricky Martin performance… Where do we begin? Obviously the performance is completely cringe-worthy and embarrassing for Danny, and not just because the venue is totally inappropriate (they're at a library). It's also the fact that Chin-Kee just doesn't care—he's completely un-self-conscious, without any sense of shame in his performance or himself. So while he represents the foreign or the Other like no one else in the book, significantly he doesn't represent this to himself. This performance drives home the reality that all Chin-Kee's (and everyone else's, for that matter) Otherness is everyone else's problem projected on to him.

Also worth noting is that fact that Chin-Kee's having fun with American culture, which makes us wonder: Why isn't anyone else? Why is everyone else so serious and protective of whatever constitutes American culture?

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