American Born Chinese (Anglais) Broché – 23 décembre 2008
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Three storylines. Three different characters. One single idea. At the heart of our first story is Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who just wants to fit in. He wants to date the cute blond girl in the overalls and to perm his hair. What he wants, and how far he's willing to go to get it, is the center of the story itself. The second storyline concerns the tales of the Monkey King. Not content to be merely a monkey, the Monkey King did everything in his power to become a Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. This was all well and good until he was informed by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence, that he was a monkey after all. It's not until the King can accept what he is that he is able to free himself from his own self-induced prison. The third storyline is the riskiest of the three. It plays out like a bad sitcom, with a kid named Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is every horrible Chinese stereotype ever concocted and rolled into a single character. His story slowly continues until it becomes clear that the three different tales we've been reading have merged into a single narrative. And at the heart of the narrative is the idea that assimilation is a question of forfeiting your soul. A forfeit that no one should want to make.
Yang skillfully brings together all kinds of elements that relate to the idea of wanting to become someone you're not. When we first see Jin Wang, he's just a little kid playing with a Transformer. Jin Wang loves Transformers so much that he wants to be one when he grows up. It seems like a typical kid-like thing to say, but Yang understands the essential lure of what a Transformer was. It changed from one thing to another according to the situation. So when you see Jin and his young Chinese-American friends gathered on Saturday mornings with their Transformers to watch the tv show of the same name and then act it out, you know precisely what Yang's saying. The book is full of small details like this that kids, even if they don't entirely understand what is being said, will contemplate on a much deeper level.
My husband snatched up and read this book just before I was able to (he's a grapic novel fan), and he complained a little that the Monkey King storyline wasn't in more of the book. I feel torn on the issue. On the one hand, I think that Yang has given just the right amount of weight and time to each tale in this book. On the other hand, it's hard not to want more Monkey King. I'm kind of ashamed to say it, but the first time I ever heard of the legend was when I read, "The Sign of Qin" by L.G. Bass. After that I found other Monkey King picture books, and came to the slow realization that here was an amazing character. A trickster, but with a kind of gravity that makes him a more understandable character than your usual Pucks, Pans, and Coyotes.
The art itself is simple enough to lure in the kiddies right from the start, without ever becoming too simple or failing to convey the storyline. In the end, this book is one of the subtler discussions of race, racism, and trying to fit in. Fellow author Derek Kirk Kim is blurbed as saying, "As an Asian American, American Born Chinese is the book I've been waiting for all my life". The book goes beyond just the Asian American community, though. It's a smart witty treatise that needs to be read and understood by all kids. The best graphic novel of 2006 for children, bar none.
It shoud be noted that, even though Yang balances three stories (which ultimately converge) in this book, Jin's story serves as the emotional core of the novel. The Monkey King's and Chin-Kee's stories represent different poles of Jin's identity as a Chinese American -- extreme, identity-negating self-reliance, on the one hand, and extreme, caricatured self-hatred, on the other. The novel does a brilliant job of drawing us into the world of a teenager who engages these extremes as a matter of "growing up Asian American" -- a paradoxical subject of repulsion and desire, exclusion and belonging.
Don't get me wrong, though: while Yang's themes are undeniably powerful, his writing is just really, really funny. The Monkey King is raucously self-involved; Chin-Kee is both sad and strangely self-aware of his own caricaturedness (i.e., his "kung fu" moves are all named after "Chinese" dishes, like "Mooshu Fist"), and one scene involving Jin, bathroom soap, and his love interest Amelia had me in stitches. Which is to say it's nice to see that important themes of identity and cultural belonging can be explored in such a playful manner.
Credit to Yang, then, for not taking himself so seriously, and for giving us a profound meditation on "growing up ethnic" that looks, sounds, and *feels* right.
But, as usual, I have a different viewpoint to bring to this discussion. We all have filters we view the world through, and this is also true of the way we approach media, whether it be books, movies, poetry, etc. My Christian faith is a large filter for me, and it impacts the way I view books.
American Born Chinese is a story told in three separate stories that eventually converge. Remember Holes? Louis Sachar did the same thing. The three plotlines came together in surprising ways that add to the enjoyment of the story. It is part of the mystery of the book.
In plotline one, Jin Wang has started a new life in a new home and a new school. He struggles to fit in with his new classmates who only see his differences. His classmates focus only on the negative stereotypes they have heard about the Chinese people. He is mocked and picked on, and the only friend he can find is a bully who threatens to make Jin eat his boogers if he won't share his food. I found myself cringing a little as I remembered a classmate that was in my elementary school. His name was Nguyen Ly, but later on he changed his name to an American name. Now I understand why he wanted to do that. It is hard to be different. One more important aspect to this story is that Jin loves his transformer robot. One day, he wants to be a transformer himself.
In plot two, the King of the Monkeys is angered when he is turned away at a party for being a monkey. No matter how much skill he acquires, he is belittled for being a monkey. In his anger, he beats the tar out of multiple people using his kung fu skills. Finally, he receives a visit from the great Tze-Yo-Tzuh, a god, who encourages the Monkey King to accept his role in life and to take enjoyment in that role. Be proud you are a monkey, he seems to be saying. The Monkey King won't listen and is "punished" for his refusal.
In plot three, a teenage boy named Danny feels humiliated everytime his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit him. Chin-Kee goes around at Danny's school seemingly encouraging all the negative stereotypes people have towards Asians. He has buck teeth, can't correctly pronounce his l's and r's, and just makes a fool of himself.
First, the technical elements: The artwork is amazing. Each drawing contains amazing colors and good use of frames to create motion and time. Also, the author uses a creative device that shows us when a person is speaking in a language other than English. The text is written in English but the quotation is surrounded by angular parentheses. This way, the reader knows the speaker is not speaking English, but we can still read the conversation.
One thing no one has pointed out is that many of the speeches made by Tze-Yo-Tzuh are taken directly from the Bible. Most of it is from Psalm 139. This is the passage where it talks about God knowing us completely, when we get up and when we lie down. We cannot escape him. I am linking the whole chapter in this for anyone who wants to read it.
What I got out of this story is that God created us each to be something, and he does not make mistakes. We can fight against it, but we usually just hurt ourselves. I am thinking of a very dear friend of mine. He is a wonderful person, but has been fighting God for years.
When the monkey was fighting and striving, he was always angry and never got what he wanted. It was only by accepting his role in the world that he found himself. And notice his role was unselfishly giving of himself to help others. And the reason I put punished in quotes above is that I don't really think the god in this book punished the Monkey King out of anger. I believe he did it for his own good to lead him to the truth. Tze-Yo-Tzuh tried everything before he buried him in a mountain of rock.
Please don't think I am immune to the cultural implications of this book. When we see the cruelty with which the world treats Jin and his friends, it is heartbreaking. I hope people will read this work and re-think these stereotypes. But I also know that stereotypes exist, and you can only change yourself. Jin, the Monkey King, and anyone else who is discriminated against cannot wait for the world to change in order to find the happiness we all deserve. We must each act with integrity and take joy in the roles we have been given in this world, whether they are received with praise or hostility.
More than halfway though reading the vividly illustrated story, I still had no idea how the three distinct and alternating tales that make up the book were going to eventually come together as promised on the flap copy.
One of the three threads involves the Monkey King, who wants to be a god and literally gets himself buried in trouble. Another is the story of Jin Wang, whose previously blissful childhood, spent in San Francisco's Chinatown, is transformed when his family moves to a very different community and Jin starts attending Mayflower Elementary School. The third thread is about Danny, a popular (and non-Asian) basketball player whose school life is annually disrupted by the arrival of his cousin Chin-Kee, who physical characteristics, dress, and mannerisms epitomize the extremes of Chinese stereotyping.
I cannot imagine a reader not being sucked into this one after the scene in which Jin gets his first hit of Mayflower Elementary. The teacher introduces him as Jing Jang (instead of Jin Wang), tells her students that he moved from China (instead of Chinatown), and then when one of the kids immediately raises his hand to tell the class that 'Momma says Chinese people eat dogs," the teacher responds, "Now be nice, Timmy! I'm sure Jin doesn't do that! In fact, Jin's family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States."
I've never gotten to do a graphic novel read aloud. Now I can't wait to figure out how to make it happen. I can easily imagine assigning parts to students each day and doing AMERICAN BORN CHINESE as readers theater. (All I need now is a way to scam a class set.)
In any case, this is a graphic novel that belongs in every middle school collection.