Friday, April 11, 2014

Flashback Friday (#3): Review: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This is a more irregular feature. Flashback Friday is where I review, or possibly discuss, an old TV show, movie, book, or album. So what's considered old? Anything that was not released within the past year and a half. By years, I mean calendar year (so for this year, June 2013-December 2014 would NOT be old)

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: September 5th, 2006
A tour-de-force by rising indy comics star Gene Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of three apparently unrelated characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable. American Born Chinese is an amazing ride, all the way up to the astonishing climax.
"It explores identity and image, race and society."

So I actually read this book once, but it was ages ago. Then, recently, I went to a signing at Books of Wonder, and Gene Luen Yang was one of the authors on the panel, and I knew I had to buy both this book and his new book(s) Boxers & Saints. As an Asian American myself, a lot of what Gene mentioned while speaking was really impactful for me. It was then that I knew I had to re-read this book at some point. What really got me to re-read this again was receiving a copy of This One Summer to review from First Second. I realized that I wanted to get back into reading graphic novels, and I knew I would have to make the time to read both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints. So when I was in a bit of a slump, I picked ABC up. I'm sure glad that I chose to re-read this.

I don't remember any of my initial impressions from the first time I read this, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. The twist at the end was one I wasn't expecting at all, but I love how it brought the story together. The ending held such an important message--the one I was waiting for the book to get to. I was so close to giving this a 3.5, but the ending and the book's final message is what ultimately pushed me to give it a slightly higher rating.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was seeing how other people interacted and treated the err...human characters (this starts to get confusing towards the end, but I'm going to stick with humans), particularly Jin. While I don't know how accurate this would be, I suppose that it could definitely be a real-life scenario. I admit that I live in a very diverse neighborhood and attend one of the most diverse schools in the US, so perhaps my experience as an Asian American is different from the experiences of others. I just liked the exploration of treatment towards Asians/Asian Americans because I think it's always important to discuss the issue of how society and peers treat those of another race. There were many relationships that I wish had been explored more or that I at least wanted some closure on. A lot of it was left open, and I believe that it would have been even more whole and complete if we had gotten some hint of what ended up happening.

However, my biggest problem was the overuse of Chinese stereotypes. While it was certainly...entertaining, there were times when I just couldn't figure out what Chin-Kee was saying, and there were times when it just made me mad to see Asians portrayed in such a light. Though the end message made up for this a little bit, it frustrated me in a surprising way. Maybe I had been expecting something different or maybe I was expecting a more positive image of Asians, but this definitely didn't give me that. Maybe that's what made the message at the end meaningful. I'm not really certain.

(Ahhh, I just found this blog post written by Gene Luen Yang, and it addresses this exact issue. I implore you to check it out for yourself because it gives great insight.)

Lastly, I just kind of wished there had been a bit of exploration into the relationship between Jin and his parents or how his parents and their culture have affected him. I would have loved to see what they thought when they saw his new haircut. How do they react to him being hit in the face? Just little things like that could've added a lot more, and it would have made the book/plot feel a bit more comprehensive.

Overall, I thought this was an interesting book that brought together Chinese culture, both current and traditional, into the spotlight. It explores identity and image, race and society. If you can get past some of the aspects of this book, I think there's something really valuable in this book for everyone.
American Born Chinese: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository
Gene Luen Yang: Website | Twitter | Facebook

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