Study Guide

American Born Chinese Themes

By Gene Luen Yang

  • Betrayal

    Betrayal in American Born Chinese isn't just a matter of screwing over someone you ought to be loyal to—it's about betraying yourself. Jin kisses his best friend's girlfriend, but the only reason he does this is because he can't deal with his Chineseness. Meanwhile, the Monkey King also betrays his monkey subjects when he forces them to wear shoes like the gods and goddesses. Why? Because he feels insecure about his monkey self. In a nutshell: it all comes back to being cool with yourself. If you're not, at least in ABC, things are bound to go badly.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. How do Chin-Kee and Danny betray each other?
    2. Why is Wong Lao-Tsai able to remain loyal to Tze-Yo-Tzuh?
    3. How do the white characters in the book also engage in forms of betrayal?
    4. Why does the book end with Jin and Wei-Chen laughing while in a Chinese restaurant?

    Chew on This

    Betraying someone you love is worse than betraying yourself.

    Betraying yourself is worse than betraying someone you love.

  • Friendship

    In American Born Chinese, Wei-Chen does all sorts of things to support Jin, and that extends to showing Jin what Chinese American culture is all about. Friendship in the novel isn't just about two guys having each other's back: it's about showing your friend who he really is.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Is Jin a good friend to Wei-Chen?
    2. Is Greg really looking out for Amelia's best interests when he tells Jin to back off?
    3. Why does Wei-Chen forgive Jin? Would you?
    4. Is the Monkey King his arrogant self in the beginning because he doesn't have any real friends?

    Chew on This

    Friends keep you honest and down-to-earth.

    You should forgive and forget if your friend does something wrong.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Lies in American Born Chinese take the form of self-deception more than the deception of others. Sure Wei-Chen lies to Jin's mom, which turns out to be a big deal, but most of the lies have more to do with how we learn to reject our true selves in order to become fantasy versions of ourselves. And we don't think we need to tell you how that turns out.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why is Wei-Chen's lie to Jin's mom such a big deal?
    2. What kinds of lies does the Monkey King tell?
    3. How is Greg a liar?
    4. If Chin-Kee's story is really a TV sitcom, how is American popular culture deceptive and is that always a bad thing?

    Chew on This

    American popular media is a disease—all it does is spread false, racist stereotypes.

    It's not the responsibility of an American TV sitcom to portray truth—it's purpose is to entertain an audience.

  • Violence

    All three of our main guys engage in various forms of violence because in American Born Chinese violence is a way of releasing frustration and anger. It's also a way of showing how manly you are. Of course, the book doesn't condone that violence—in fact, each of these characters' journeys involves learning how to manage violent tendencies and become peaceful beings.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why is violence the Monkey King's go-to method for showing his superiority over others?
    2. How does Jin engage in violence?
    3. How does school bullying affect Jin?
    4. Why does Suzy Nakamura react to bullying differently than Jin?

    Chew on This

    People who are bullied become bullies.

    Violence is a masculine thing.

  • Appearances

    Appearances in American Born Chinese are what drive the entire plot of the book. The book hinges on some key twists, all of which involve the making and unmaking of the Chinese appearance. You have Danny, a white boy who we find out is actually the fantasy alter-ego of Chinese American Jin. Then you have Chin-Kee, the ultimate stereotype of a Chinese person, who literally has his appearance knocked off of him at the end of the book. Appearances are what enable these characters to undergo their necessary transformations.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. How do Chin-Kee's looks relate to the way he appears (as in introduced) in the book?
    2. How do the deceptive appearances of the characters drive the plots of the book?
    3. What is the effect of seeing Danny's appearance next to Chin-Kee's appearance?
    4. What kinds of appearances does this book seem to support?

    Chew on This

    You shouldn't change your appearance because it's who you are.

    Your appearance is important because it determines how other people treat you and, thus, is a way for you to define yourself.

  • Humility

    If we're going to boil this book down to one big takeaway virtue, it's this: be humble. That's the lesson the Monkey King and Danny/Jin both finally arrive at in American Born Chinese. However, humility in the novel also relates to the experience of public shame—so even though it's the most desired way of being in the book, it also takes quite a bit of public humiliation in order to get to this virtue. Is this always necessary? The jury's still out on that one.

    Questions About Humility

    1. Why does the Monkey King become a humble character before Jin?
    2. Why is humility such a prized virtue in the book?
    3. If Jin is humble at the end of the book, does that mean he is also meek?
    4. Why is it important for Wong Lao-Tsai to be the model of humility in the book?

    Chew on This

    You can't be a humble person unless you've experienced pure humiliation.

    Being humble also means being weak.

  • Coming of Age

    In American Born Chinese, coming of age has more to do with facing your everyday old self. That means the Monkey King needs to come to grips with the fact that he's just a monkey at the end of the day (despite his miraculous powers), and Jin needs to realize that he'll never be white and that he'll always be Chinese. So becoming mature really just means becoming comfortable in your own skin.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What exactly forces Jin to come of age?
    2. Can the Monkey King's personal transformation be considered a coming of age?
    3. How do adults affect Jin's coming of age?
    4. Do the female characters get the chance to come of age in the book too?

    Chew on This

    Coming of age is a lonely process—you can't take your friends with you.

    If you don't face any obstacles in life, you never actually come of age.

  • Transformation

    Who doesn't transform in American Born Chinese? Transformation is the one constant in the book. But transformation doesn't mean turning into something or someone completely new. It's more about (re)claiming one's original self, as the Monkey King does with his monkey-ness and as Jin does with his Chinese-ness.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What is the difference between the Monkey King's transformations in the beginning of the book and the transformation he goes through with Wong Lao-Tsai?
    2. What's the relationship between the physical and the psychological transformations Jin goes through?
    3. How does Wei-Chen's transformation support Jin's transformation?
    4. Why do the characters feel the need to transform so much?

    Chew on This

    Physical transformations are just superficial—what really matter are psychological and spiritual transformations.

    Physical transformations are the most important thing—they lead to inner transformations.

  • Foreigness and "The Other"

    When you've got a book titled American Born Chinese, you've got to expect that foreignness will be a huge issue. And it is. Jin does whatever he can to appear typically "American" (that's in scare quotes because who knows what that even means) in hopes that he won't seem Chinese/foreign. But he's not the only one. The Monkey King also does what he can to not appear like the Other as a monkey in a world of humans, gods, and goddesses. There's no changing a face or a body, or for that matter, a race, and that's the crux of how the foreign works in this book: it's something that the characters can't run away from since it's an inextricable part of who they are and how they experience the world around them. What they can change, however, is their self-perception, so dealing with the Other is really a process of dealing with the self.

    Questions About Foreigness and "The Other"

    1. How do Wei-Chen and Jin deal differently with their Chineseness at their predominantly white school?
    2. How is the Monkey King an example of the Other?
    3. How does Suzy Nakamura deal with her sense of foreignness?
    4. Why is Chin-Kee so important to the story?

    Chew on This

    We need the Other in order to define ourselves.

    Stereotypes exist because they're grounded in truth.

  • Versions of Reality

    You might want to look at this theme as more versions of fantasy rather than versions of reality because in American Born Chinese pretty much everyone is engaging in some type of fantasy, whether it's self-delusion or full-blown magic. The point? Reality is already made up of the fantastical, from the stereotypes that spew out of a typical TV sitcom to the mythical Monkey King who guides Jin to his best self. None of the characters can avoid the fantastical; in fact, part of our protagonists' journeys have to do with learning how to use fantasy to remake themselves into moral and ethical characters.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How does the old herbalist lady in Chinatown affect Jin's sense of reality?
    2. Why is the Monkey King so unsuccessful at recreating a new self who belongs with all the other deities?
    3. What is the purpose of the whole Danny/Chin-Kee storyline?
    4. What version of reality does the book seem to settle on at the end?

    Chew on This

    Power comes from the ability to turn fantasy into reality.

    There are no versions of reality—there's only one reality, and everything else is just self-delusion.