American Born Chinese

JMV- Very often when given a graphic novel students, and at times, their parents, think it isn’t “really reading.” Graphic novels are not necessarily light reading, just because they have pictures. In fact, in many instances, graphic novels require more effort on the part of the reader than a traditional novel does. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is one of these novels.

The Monkey King is disrespected by the other gods, and studies kung-fu until he masters it, and is even attempts to transform himself. He encounters the god, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, who tried to get him to accept himself as he is. When the Monkey King refuses Tze-Yo-Tzuh imprisons him under a mountain of rocks where the Monkey King stays until he returns to his true form, and works as a disciple of the monk, Jiang Tao.

Jin Wang is one of three Asian students in his school. He struggles to fit in with the rest of his Caucasian peers, although he develops a strong friendship with Wei-Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant. Wei-Chen starts dating one of the other Asian students in the school, Suzy Nakamura, while Jin Wang attempts to start a relationship with Amelia Harris, a Caucasian girl he has a crush on. After one of Amelia’s friends asks Jin not to date her, he kisses Suzy, damaging his relationship with Wei-Chen.

Danny is an “All-American Boy,” but he has a cousin Chin-Kee, who is a Chinese caricature. Danny believes that Chin-Kee is an embarrassment. Eventually, all the stories intertwine, and we find out that Chin-Kee is really the Monkey King, Danny is Jin Wang, and Wei-Chen is the Monkey King’s estranged son.

Yang blends three independent stories together with deftness and ease. In fact, the stories are so casually intertwined, that if a reader is not paying attention s/he may become confused at how they intersect. This can be a problem for even the most practiced of readers. The way Jin Wang, Danny, and the Monkey King’s stories connect in a way that only works in a visual medium. Reading about the transformations and dual identities would not have the same effect as seeing them.

As teachers we need to help our students develop all sorts of reading skills, and as we enter an increasingly graphic world, reading these sorts of stories can only help them. Infographics, blogs, and websites are only a fraction of the texts our students will be exposed to, and they should notice things, such as when characters break through the frames of the page.


6 thoughts on “American Born Chinese

  1. We did an in class exercise where we took quotes out of Where Do You Stop? and applied them to other novels. One that I came up with for American Born Chinese was on page 32 of WDYS: “We don’t know how much we don’t know until what we don’t know becomes what we didn’t know; that is, after we know it; and then we know only how much we didn’t know compared to what we know now- we still don’t know how much we don’t know”.

    MAS 2015

  2. JMV- Your blog post hit it right on the nail with this book! I just had one of my students read this book and she truly loved the book. She is at an advanced reading level and she actually told me that she enjoyed the book despite not having a preference for graphic novels (just like me which is why I encouraged her to read it!) I think that your post really summarizes and distinctively addresses how a book like American Born Chinese makes us as teachers realize that we need to make our students well rounded readers in every aspect of the world. This book really forced me into a genre that previously had no connections for. Similarly, my student experienced the same thing. This is one of those books like Persepolis where the graphic novels really introduce you to exploring elements of reading with an intricate and wonderful plot.


    • I think sometimes it’s hard for us as teachers to admit what we don’t know/what we aren’t comfortable with. Not only does it make us stronger teachers to push our boundaries, it makes us more relatable to our students as well. I think there are so many brilliant graphic novels, and graphic memoirs out there, that we would be doing our students a disservice to keep them out of the curriculum. JMV

  3. Slightly off topic, I have made no effort to hide the fact that I love graphic novels or comic books. Free Comic Book Day was the other day and DC comics put out a comic that had a short story about Superman in it. For those of you who do not know, Superman/ Clark Kent/ Kal-El is an immigrant from another land who comes to live in the United States at a very young age. He grows up struggling to find his identity in this new land, one could say that he also gets into a few adventures along the way.
    Many writers have struggled writing with writing Superman and the newest writer to take on this challenge is Gene Luen Yang.
    In a recent article. Yang talks about how he identified with Superman,
    “And maybe that’s why I loved superheroes so much when I was a kid. My parents are immigrants. Like Superman, I had two names, one American and the other foreign. I, too, lived in between two cultures. When he travelled from America to the bottle city of Kandor, one of the few remnants of his home culture, I felt a kinship with him. It was a bit like the shift from public school to Chinese language school that I had to go through every Saturday.”
    Here is a link to the article.

    I’m not normally a fan of DC or Superman, but I am a fan of Yang so I might just pick this up.


    • I think you make a very valid point about the relatability of Superman. I read an article once about how Superman was obviously Jewish, and it just goes to show that all cultures can find something of themselves in literature. JMV

  4. Hey JMV,
    I agree with your argument that graphic novels require effort on the part of the reader because the person has to pay close attention to details, just like in traditional novels. When students read graphic novels like American Born Chinese they have to analyze the author’s choice in structuring the text a certain way, and they can look at how language functions in different contexts. Graphics novels are great to read towards the end of the school year, like right after the common core exams because it’s less intimidating for the students, and because of the humor, students would easily engage into it. This past semester I witnessed the aftermath of the common core exams, and students were totally disengaged with school, especially the 8th graders who believed that since they were graduating in June they did not have to work anymore. However, it was still early May and there was about 6 weeks left of school, so I would like to use American Born Chinese in this scenario. JA

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