American Born Chinese is a graphic novel written along three different story lines: a legendary myth of the Monkey King; a boy named Jin Wang who is trying to balance his family’s culture and the culture in which he lives; and an obnoxiously stereotyped Chinese man who comes to visit his cousin in America. The novel switches between these three seemingly unrelated accounts, until the end when they all culminate in one great meaning. Each segment of these varying stories consists of about 20-30 pages, with transitions indicated by a representative red stamped Chinese seal, including the image of a screaming monkey, a concerned boy, and a snickering stereotyped Chinese man. Because this book is a graphic novel, it is written in dialogue, with few interjectory narrations. Also, a significant element to understanding this text is done by interpreting

the coordinating images.

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Key Characters:

  • Jin Wang - the only Chinese-American student at his new school

  • Danny - the popular basketball player at school

  • Chin-Kee - Danny's embarrassing cousin

  • Monkey King - character of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables

Issues related to this Study of Literature:

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Identity- Jin Wang is torn between two cultures: the Chinese culture that his parents know so well, and the culture of the students he interacts with at school. He finds himself in many awkward situations

because of what he has been taught. For example, Jin goes on a date with a pretty American girl named Amelia. Deodorant is not a part of the Chinese culture that he grew up with. Trying to salvage himself from the sweaty stink of riding his bike, he put powdered soap under his arms, which bubbled all over his date when he tried to put his arm around her. Luckily, it wasn’t evident that she noticed. When he comes to accept who he is, he finds he has greater confidence and the ability to restore damaged relationships. Identity is also a major theme in the story of the Monkey King. He is rejected by all of the other deities because of the way he looks. They are all in human form, while he is a monkey. Although he is more than qualified to be among them, they reject him. This rejection leads him to mastering twelve major disciplines of kung-fu, enabling him to change his form to be more human-like. There is a scene where he argues with Tze-yotzuh, his creator, over whether or not he is a monkey. As the Monkey King tries to escape this truth by flying to the edges of the universe, he finds that he is destined to be a monkey. His anger at this conclusion caused Tze-yo-tzuh to bury him under a pile of rocks where he remained for 500 years, until he recognizes and takes his true form, making him small enough to escape the rocks (149-150). It teaches acceptance of identity, along with the power that comes from working with what one has.

Stereotyping- There are many examples of the danger of stereotyping in American Born Chinese. A very obvious example is the story of Chin-kee. As the reader looks at him, especially outside of context, the reader can see and analyze the different ways he is stereotyped. Chin-kee’s name, itself, denotes a derogatory term. Also, his two large teeth and closed eyes, yellow skin, and long braid are just the physical elements. In addition to these, he possesses different abrasive, uncivilized qualities that have historically been ascribed to Chinese people. The danger of viewing these stereotypes is seen in the stark contrast between this imagined character and Jin Wang, who, despite some cultural differences, still possesses a common set of morals and values with the rest of his classmates. In the end, however, we learn that Danny’s contempt toward Chin-kee is really Jin Wang’s contempt toward his own culture, as he has begun to believe that those

stereotypes may be real.

American Born Chinese4.jpgComing of Age- This graphic novel can viewed as bildungsroman or coming of age story. Jin Wang has to find himself and where he hangs in the balance between the two different cultures. The awkwardness of this process is illustrated when he moves from Chinatown to his new elementary school, with “the scent of [his] old home still lingering in [his] clothes” (30). The teacher introduces him to the class: “Class, I’d like us all to give a big Mayflower Elementary welcome to your new friend and classmate Jing Jang.” He corrects her: “Jin Wang.” The contrast between the Mayflower Elementary School and the uniqueness of Jin Wang’s culture set the stage for other contrasting elements of Chinese culture and mainstream Americanism. He is not always understood, and often singled out because he is different. He has to make decisions and sacrifices based on what is really important to him, at times sacrificing the wrong things. This novel shows the readers Jin Wang’s process of making this decision, showing him as he grows and matures.

Teacher Resources:

Warning! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!

  1. Are you familiar with graphic novels? Have you read one before? How does this one compare to something you might have read or what your previous impressions of graphic novels were?

  2. Why was the graphic novel format a good choice by the author? Did the pictures add to or tell more of the story to the reader?

  3. Each story is told a little differently. Chin-Kee's is told through a TV program, the Monkey King is a more traditional tale. Why do you think the author did this? Did it work?

  4. Have you or someone you know transformed him or herself in a similar to the transformations of characters?

  5. How do the characters' feeling about themselves influence how they think they are perceived or how they are treated? Do their attitudes toward themselves make them feel better or worse?

  6. Would it be hard for you to move to a new country and try to fit in? How does Jin try to fit in?

  7. What is a stereotype? What characters follow a stereotype and what are some examples from the book of that stereotype?

  8. What lesson does the Monkey King learn that he passed on to Jin?

Souce: Reading Strategies for American Born Chinese

Link: Humble Comics Presents: Monkey Kingdom, a tribute to Sun Wukong the Monkey King