After a graphic series as complex and compelling as Monster it was a weirdly massive shift to start on American Born Chinese. At least when I was reading Monster I didn’t have to look over my shoulder every time a racist character came onto the page.
As a graphic novel, American Born Chinese deals a lot with stereotypes. It deals with the idea of stereotyping across three separate story arcs that end up being neatly tied together in the end. Almost a bit too neatly to be honest, but hey it was an interesting ride.
The first of the threads is a retelling of the backstory of the Monkey King from Journey to the West. It’s a cute way to start the graphic novel and it features the best artwork of the three. It makes me think that I should read that old epic, but I’m sure that feeling will pass.
The remaining two tell the stories of stereotyping against Asian-Americans in high school. The first one is a straight telling of the main protagonist as he negotiates being one of only three Asian kids in his classes. The level of racism encountered in these threads is actually upsetting. As an ex-teacher who witnessed this between students, and as someone who went to a school where racist jokes were not punished they should have been, I was taken aback.
However, the racism is there to make a point. The whole piece is about stereotypes and how they can isolate and trap you or even force you to homogenize in order to feel some form of acceptance. The way that the concept of stereotyping is done differently depending on the thread, but the most blatant is the character of Chin-Kee (yes, I cringed too).
Both the extreme negatives and positive Asian stereotypes (e.g. Engrish vs high school attainment) feel extremely on the nose as you read through this graphic novel for the first time. However, once the three stories tie together you get a better idea that this was meant to be a deconstruction rather than pure shock tactics.
Personally I found the way that the three lines tied together in the end to feel a little bit forced, but it doesn’t prevent the enjoyment of American Born Chinese. Nor does it diminish the fact that this is a fairly unique third culture voice in a 1001 book full of superheroes, talking dogs and assorted manga.