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Bookworm Blurbs

I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.

American Born Chinese.

American Born Chinese - Gene Luen Yang

All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...

Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god...

Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life. Danny's a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...

These three apparently unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, in a modern fable that is hilarious, poignant and action-packed. American Born Chinese is an amazing rise, all the way up to the astonishing climax--and confirms what a growing number of readers already know: Gene Yang is a major talent. (source)

Wow, so I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one - which is mainly why I gave it 3 stars. This is so different from anything I've ever read. For one thing, it's a graphic novel and I have NEVER read a graphic novel, which is exactly why I picked this up. While I have a hard time thinking of graphic novels as literature, I recognize that they are EXTREMELY popular among library patrons and, more importantly, they're like catnip to reluctant readers. So, I took it upon myself to start reading them. Maybe this was a bad one to start with - as a white American in her twenties, I had a very hard time relating to this (more on that later). It was recommended to me by one of my bosses, but the only reason she recommended it to me was because it was the only one she'd ever read, and maybe I should have taken that as a clue - she and I have very similar tastes in literature, and maybe if this had been more to her liking, she would have read more graphic novels. As it is, she stopped with this one and now has the same feeling that I do, that she NEEDS to read more because the kids love them, but she doesn't really feel drawn to them. Ugh. Librarian problems, haha. 


So anyway, I guess I'll start with the good. The structure of this was really cool. It's told as three seemingly unrelated stories. One is of a deity in the form of a monkey who doesn't want to be a monkey, because monkeys are looked down upon by the other deities, so he sets out to learn all of these skills so he can transform from a monkey into something... else (if you ask me, he still looked like a monkey, just bigger and tougher, I guess). Another is the story of Jin, who is first-generation American - his parents moved to America from China as college students. His life was all fine and dandy in San Francisco, where he lived in a tiny apartment and had lots of Chinese American friends, but then his family moves to the suburbs and suddenly he's one of 2 Asian kids in a predominantly white school, and he feels VERY out of place. After a while, another Asian kid moves to the school (this one directly from Taiwan) and the two become best friends, even though the new kid is very stereotypically Chinese and that kind of makes Jin uncomfortable since it makes him stand out. But anyway, they're friends and it's cute. And the third story is that of Danny, a white American kid who receives a visit from his super-Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, who then follows him around school and does all these absolutely horrid things that are supposedly stereotypical of Chinese kids. Needless to say, Danny is mortified. So, anyway, these 3 storylines all appear to be unrelated and they're told piece by piece, alternating amongst themselves. However, they're actually all part of one giant story and it's really cool how Yang weaves them together. So major props for that; I was impressed. 


Also, while I found the majority of the story to be super unrelatable (for ME, not for everyone), I did think that the underlying theme is a great one that everyone can relate to. Basically, the message that Yang wants to convey is that no matter who you are or what you look like, you need to feel comfortable in your own skin. Yeah, it can be really hard to do that sometimes, and sometimes it might feel like you have absolutely nothing in common with anyone around you. But once you accept yourself and love yourself as you are, you'll find your niche and everything will be great. In this novel, Yang specifically addresses Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans in particular, but it is a message that everyone can relate to, especially young adults. High school and middle school are some of the hardest times for people who are "different" from others, and I think that this is a message that can't be repeated too frequently to this age group. 


Even so, the message of the book is one that young adults do hear a lot and sometimes, it can start to come across as cliche. Yang combats this by using LOTS of humor in his story. There were some really funny parts and I actually found myself literally laughing out loud at times. However, some of the humor was very crude, which I've never really been appreciative of, and some of it exploited Chinese stereotypes. I think that Yang was attempting to show how a) hurtful and b) untrue these stereotypes are, but I actually found them to be very crass and unnecessary. As I'm sitting here typing this, I just thought of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, which has often been criticized for its use of the N word. Defenders of the novel claim that Twain's point in using that word is to show how culturally ingrained it was in the South at the time, as well as to show that those who used it were incredibly ignorant and that Jim, the black character, is actually the hero of the story. I agree with this latter interpretation, and I think that's what Yang was aiming for, but regardless, I still found his exploitation of Chinese stereotypes to be unsettling.

One example that stands out at me was when Chin-Kee steals one of Danny's classmates cans of soda and actually pees in it as a joke.

(show spoiler)

I don't know why anyone would do that and I don't think that such acts are regarded as typical of Chinese Americans, and I think it was kind of counter-productive that Yang would use a character who is supposed to be as "Chinese" as you can get in such a way. 


As a white American woman, I had a really difficult time responding to the Chinese stereotypes and racism against Chinese Americans in this story. Yang portrays this as stuff that goes on everyday that Asian Americans have to deal with - and I realize that as a Chinese American himself, he would know better than me if this is true, or merely an exaggeration for the purposes of the story. But I personally have NEVER seen any of this go on in real life. When I look at a person, whether they're black, white, Asian, or some other race entirely, I guess I do register the fact that they're whatever race or ethnicity, but I don't think that I've ever made assumptions about the way that they'll act or the beliefs that they'll hold based upon race. I certainly don't think that I've ever treated them differently because of it. I realize that I am only one  person and obviously racism still exists in society today, but based on my experiences, I just found that aspect of it really unrelatable and difficult to believe. 


So, I guess that my first experience with a graphic novel was successful? I finished it, and I can see why this format would appeal to some readers - it wasn't difficult to read at all, it had pictures, it was a fast read (I finished it in an hour), and parts of it were funny. However, I don't think that this was the best graphic novel for me to start with as I did find it to be difficult to relate to and, frankly, if this were in a more traditional format I don't know if I would have chosen to read it, which may have been why it didn't really resonate for me. I'm definitely going to be reading more graphic novels and I'm making it my goal for the year to find at least 3 that I can genuinely say that I liked - which is going to be easier said than done since graphic novels are NOT a genre that I gravitate towards. Wish me luck - and if you have any recommendations, please send them my way!