American Born Chinese
by Gene Yang (First Second, 2006)

This is one of those graphic novels whose title announces the story pretty clearly. American Born Chinese starts out as a collection of three seemingly disparate stories about life as a Chinese-American and ends with a single message about acceptance of one's identity.

The first thread is a re-telling of the Legend of the Monkey King, in which the monkey king, angry with what he perceives to be an unfair class system, decides to better himself through the art of kung fu; although he becomes quite skilled, his growing arrogance earns him a stern reprimand from the creator of all things. The second story is about Jin, a Chinese-American boy who struggles with discrimination and ignorance. The third is about Danny, who fervently believes in just going along to get along at his new high school; unfortunately, his cousin, whose embarrassing behavior is the reason he's had to transfer schools three times in as many years, is visiting yet again, jeopardizing his attempts to fly below the radar.

It could be said that American Born Chinese is kind of thematically obvious. It's pretty clear that the message is concerned with the painful path to self-acceptance of one's personal heritage. But even though ABC is told in a straightforward way, it's by no means an obvious story. Yes, all the usual suspects are on full display: the frustration and shame associated with negative stereotypes, and the natural, human desire to be accepted. But it's the way in which these apparently differing stories culminate, with the written narrative taking full advantage of the visual medium, that gives this fine tale its unique twist. There are moments of confusion, awkwardness and embarrassment, but everything is handled with so much subtlety and honesty that it's easy to empathize. Being an outsider can be hellish at times, but by the end everyone has come to an understanding of themselves.

ABC is as well drawn as it is well scripted, with a cleanly executed plot and good pacing that flows together with nearly machine-like perfection. The art is textbook simple realism with an unexaggerated style, but its solidness is absolutely perfect. ABC could very easily have been reduced to cultural messaging shtick with cartoony drawings but never draws obvious conclusions about teaching kids to accept diversity and tolerate ethnicity, letting the struggle for understanding play out against nontraditional lines. The quiet beauty of the ending is dignity itself. In the end, self-acceptance is the only way through the labyrinth that is adolescence. This is a story for everyone, not just the obvious target young-adult audience.

review by
Mary Harvey

5 March 2011

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