American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second Books
One of my favorite, modern mystery series is S.J. Rozan’s about a pair of detectives named Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. The hook to the series is that the books alternate being narrated by the two sleuths. If Lydia is the initial detective on a case, she narrates the story. Same with Bill.
One thing I love about the series is watching Rozan, a middle-aged, white woman, write so convincingly from the perspectives of both a grizzled, hard-boiled male and a young, Chinese woman. But what I really love about the series are the Lydia Chin books, because of the insight they give to Chinese culture in New York City. And particularly to the attitudes of Chinese people who were born in America. ABCs, they call themselves. American Born Chinese.
What I’ve learned about American Born Chinese from Lydia Chin is that they (and, oh God, yes, I know this is a generalization) have a love-hate relationship with Chinese culture. Lydia lives with her mother, and her feelings about her mom are symbolic of her feelings about the culture her mom holds so dear. Lydia is simultaneously proud of and embarrassed by her heritage.
I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about S.J. Rozan novels because prior to my reading Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, they were my only experience with the culture. Knowing that they were written by a white woman, however well-researched they might be, I wondered how true they were to actual attitudes held by American Born Chinese people. Turns out: pretty darn true. (If Yang’s perspective is indicative, anyway.)
I mentioned in my review of Klezmer that I’m fascinated by people’s relationships to their cultures. And when I talked about Kampung Boy, I said that I also love books that let me try on those cultures myself for a while. American Born Chinese feeds both of those hungers.
Structurally, American Born Chinese is my favorite kind of book. I love stories that open with a few different plot-threads and spend the rest of their time drawing those threads closer and closer together into a unified story. The more different the threads are at the beginning, the more satisfying the whole is at the end. And the three threads in American Born Chinese couldn’t start out more differently. They’re not even in the same genre.
First we’re introduced to a fantasy story: the tale of the Monkey King, one of China’s oldest and most popular fables. Then there’s the modern-day, seemingly autobiographical tale of Jin Wang, an American Born Chinese boy who’s attending a new school and wants desperately to fit in. Finally, we have an intentionally offensive sitcom (complete with laugh track) about a young, white kid who’s mortified when his grossly stereotypical Chinese cousin comes to stay with him.
I won’t tell you how they fit together, but they do, and the result is as beautiful in its message as it is informative about ABC attitudes and culture. The reason it’s beautiful is that, like Kampung Boy, it surpasses the specifics of the culture and speaks to something universal. In this case, it speaks to insecurity and a desire to fit in.
The Monkey King feels it when the other gods tell him, “You may be a king – you may even be a deity – but you are still a monkey.” And we know what that feels like because on our most confident days there’s still a voice inside that makes us question ourselves and feel small.
Jin Wang feels it when he talks about avoiding a Japanese girl at school because of a rumor that he and she were arranged to be married on their thirteenth birthdays. And we can relate to that because there have been times when we’ve been unkind in order to fit in. And we know how – contrary to what we were trying to achieve – it just made us feel more like crap.
Danny, the white kid from the sitcom, feels it every time he looks at his stereotypical “cousin” and feels ashamed that they’re somehow related. Because you can’t change who you’re related to. You’re stuck with it. And we’ve experienced that too: the shame of something that we’ve felt powerless to change.
And as the characters in American Born Chinese learn to accept and embrace who they really are, we’re reminded that it’s a blessing to be able to do that. And that’s a wonderful, transcendent message, regardless of what kind of monkey you are.