American Born Chinese by Gene Yang is a graphic novel that consists of three main storylines: One, a retelling of the ancient story of the Monkey King. Two, the life of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. And three, the story line of Cousin Chin-Kee. These three distinct story lines are all heavily influenced by Gene Yang’s personal life.
The Monkey King initially surfaced as the main character in The Journey to the West, a 16th century novel published during the Ming dynasty. The Monkey King is one of the main characters in this novel. The Monkey King is a recurring character in many bedtime stories for Chinese children. This is how Gene Yang first heard about him. He says, “I eventually came up with the idea to use the Monkey King as a lens through which to reflect on my own experience as an Asian-American”. The stories Gene Yang heard as a young boy heavily influenced his own writing.
Jin Wang’s character is based on Gene Yang himself, but with a few key differences. Gene Yang says that the drawing of Jin Wang looks nothing like he looked growing up. Also, his best friend in grammar school was nothing like Jin Wang’s best friend in the novel. But there is one experience Yang had that left a lasting impression on him, which shows itself in the novel when Wei-Chen comes to Jin Wang’s school. When Yang was in grammar school, a younger Chinese boy started at the school and the teachers kept urging Yang to be friends with him because they were both Chinese. Yang didn’t want to be friends with this boy even though he followed him around everywhere. Yang says that the boy only stopped following him when he threw tanbark at this kid to make him go away. In the novel, Jin Wang becomes friends with “the new kid”. Perhaps this is Gene Yang’s way of righting his own middle school wrongs.
Cousin Chin-Kee’s character is the most outrageous in the novel. How does he have anything to do with Gene Yang’s personal life, you may wonder. When Yang was engaged to be married he was cleaning out the bedroom he’d had as a boy and he found a notebook full of cartoons he’d drawn in 2nd grade. One of them was of a silly Chinese character who pees in someone’s Coke. Gene Yang put this character in his book as Cousin Chin-Kee and has him pee in Danny’s Coke. It’s amazing that an entire character with a full fledged story line can emerge from one drawing Yang made in 2nd grade.