Over winter break, I was asked by a family friend to recommend some literary readings for her four Chinese American children, ages 5, 7, 9, and 14. For the teenage daughter, I immediately thought of one of my favorite books, Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic memoir The Woman Warrior. But what of the younger kids? It was in this context that I recently revisited Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese. The cover blurb helpfully summarizes the basic plotline for us: “Jin Wang starts at a new school where he’s the only Chinese-American student. When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn’t want to be associated with an FOB [fresh off the boat] like him. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he’s in love with an all-American girl.” Other key figures appear along the way, including a cousin visiting from China and the legendary Monkey King or Sun Wukong. What strikes me about this text is its potential appeal to a range of audiences. Never a big reader of comics myself, I can nonetheless see layers of genre here: this is at once diasporic folklore and ethnic bildungsroman, fictionalized memoir and psychic allegory, gothic camp and racial critique, Kung Fu Panda and Better Luck Tomorrow. In addressing the theme of Asian versus white masculinities, the damaging effects of model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes, the persistence of Yellow Peril discourse and the construction of the immigrant as alien, the novel tackles some of the central issues in Asian American studies as well as our current U.S. race and immigration policies. Without giving the final plot twist away, I’d add that readers interested more generally in theories of psychoanalysis and trauma, tricksterism and colonial mimicry, power and the assemblage will also find much material of note here. Hence, not only have I recommended American Born Chinese to my family friend for her children, but my upper-level seminar on “Imagined Asias” will be reading it this week, a fortuitously timely work for our time.
Library Note: A copy is on order!