American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that explores the immigrant experience through various lenses, but primarily through the story of a Chinese-American boy, the son of two immigrants. Though there was a lot of powerful storytelling going on, I didn’t immediately love it. It’s a very quick read, but it took me a little while to sink into it.
Yang weaves together three distinct storylines, which he masterfully brings together at the end of the book. The first is a story about the Monkey King, a figure from Chinese folk tales. I particularly loved the art in this part of the book, and was captivated by the storyline, which was magical and funny and kept twisting and turning in interesting ways. The second storyline is about young Chinese-American boy, Jin Wang, who has just moved from San Francisco to a new predominately white suburb. He struggles to find a place for himself in his new school, where he is one of only a few Asian students. The third storyline is about a white American boy, Danny, whose Chinese cousin visits him every year, something Danny resents and dreads.
In the storyline about Danny and his Chinese cousin, Yang utilizes a vilely racist Chinese stereotype. Upon finishing the book, it’s easy to see exactly why he did this, and I think it works well—but it was very hard to read. I’ve never seen a stereotype used quite this way before in a graphic novel; it’s both powerful and upsetting. It’s all-consuming, bombarding you on all fronts: not only in the storyline itself, but in the dialogue, the illustrations, the language. It’s everywhere, and that made those particular panels hard to look it. I found myself desperately wanting to get through them, simply to get some relief from having to look at it. That feeling only heightened the impact of the whole book, as having to read through those panels reflected the racism, bullying and violence faced by the Asian-American characters in the book. Yang is not gentle, and though there were light moments throughout the book, it was predominately bleak.
This is a book about alienation, about the loneliness of feeling like an an other, about self-loathing and how we react to and internalize trauma. Ultimately, it’s about self-acceptance and celebration. What makes it so powerful is the particular way Yang weaves the story—the specific journey to self-love that his characters experience. He blurs the line between magical storytelling and realistic storytelling, which I appreciated. The way the three stories came together in the end was completely unexpected and unique. I thought the ending was spot-on. I didn’t always enjoy this one—there were moments that were downright painful and jarring to read—but overall, it was a deeply relatable story, and the payoff at the end was absolutely worth it.