American Born Chinese is the only graphic novel in history to be nominated for the prestigious National Book Award to date. The story takes the form of a triptych where three separate stories are connected by interrelated themes about belonging and coming to terms with your identity.
One story follows the monkey king, a powerful master of kung-fu, who rebels against the gods after they won’t let him join their party because he’s a monkey. This experience makes him ashamed of being a monkey, and he struggles against the gods to reject his identity, and prove himself superior to a mere monkey.
The second story follows a second-generation immigrant named Jin Wang who struggles to find an identity in a school where his peers look down on him for being Chinese and the girl of his dreams doesn’t seem interested.
The third story is about a white American boy named Danny, whose Chinese cousin Chin-Kee embodies every possible stereotype about Chinese people imaginable. His cousin visits him each year and ruins his reputation at school with all his stereotypical behavior.
At the very end of the graphic novel we find out that all three stories are really a single story. Danny turns out to be Jin Wang living a fantasy life in which he imagines himself as popular and white, Chin-kee turns out to be the monkey king in disguise trying to help Jin Wang come to terms with his identity, and the monkey king’s story parallels the rejection of his peers found in both Jin and Danny’s stories. The monkey king is a nice mythic riff on the same issues of identity and belonging. After the monkey king fights the other gods in heaven for not allowing him into their party he returns home to Flower-Fruit Mountain and suddenly notices that his royal chamber smells like monkey fur, and that “he’d never noticed it before.” Yang confronts the reader with the pernicious effects of stereotyping, the way it creates a new conscience and causes you to hate your own identity. Jin and his friends constantly suffer from the white kids calling them slurs and claiming they eat dog and other nasty stereotypes. This is what causes Jin to want to be one of the white kids and assume the fantasy identity of Danny, until to be haunted by his Chinese cousin. Chin-kee’s name says it all; his name itself being a slur against people of Chinese descent. He pronounces his “L”s as “R”s and his “R”s as “L”s with ridiculous exaggeration, he tells every woman he meets that he wants to bind their feet and marry them, and brings in cat gizzards with noodles to school. He symbolizes all the negative stereotypes that Jin Wang comes to identify with being Chinese. Jin Wang flees from this identity and these stereotypes when he fantasizes himself as a popular white kid. However, as the graphic novels goes to show Chin-kee follows him everywhere, even as Danny, the popular white kid. Yang’s point seems to be that you can’t run away from your identity, it always follows you wherever you go.
Although, the writer deals directly with Asian American experience as his focal point I imagine many discriminated identities who have had to listen to hateful people hurl hurtful stereotypes can relate to this book. In a way, these themes are broader than just the Chinese American experience, while still capturing that experience. I believe all people who have ever struggled to maintain their identity against adversity and the majority insulting them will love this graphic novel.