Even as it is told from the particular perspective of a Chinese-American boy, Gene Yang’s graphic novel has been lauded by readers and critics alike as a unique piece of young adult fiction that speaks to the universal teen problem of wanting to change something about yourself in order to “fit in.” I picked up the book last month with very high hopes but was left distinctly irritated by the time I got to the end of the work. I still can’t decide, however, whether and how I want to teach it.
To be sure, my discomfort with American Born Chinese is not uncommon. In an interview with Kartika Review, the author himself cites the Christian subtext of the plot as “the number two most controversial part” of the book (the first being the outrageous character Chin-Kee, who is an old Hollywood caricature come to life).
If we are honest with ourselves, the image is as funny as it is offensive, and I think that blogger and teacher Scott Eric Kaufman is right to warn educators that students may be very reluctant to dig into the taboo humor of the character because to do so would require confronting their own intimacy with the stereotype. But I also venture that by virtue of his exaggerations, Chin-Kee demands comment and can thus facilitate a provocative discussion on race.
What troubles me more than Chin-Kee is the racial subtext that is a bit more insidious, and which is directly related to the Christian subtext. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that there is a Christian subtext, but with how it informs the message on race/ethnicity.
Before I go on any further, let me clarify exactly what I mean by the Christian element. Behold the very benevolent looking character named Tze-Yo-Tzuh in the two panels below:
Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of all existence, is Yang’s own invention, but the long white hair and beard and the shepherd’s crook give away the fact that he is very obviously modeled on Moses:
And, indeed, what Tze-Yo-Tzuh has to say tracks with the Christian platitude that God has created all of us in His image and loves us unconditionally. I have my own personal quibble with the need for an external, divine source of authority to give one’s life meaning, but I also admit that the message is not, at heart, a bad one: accept yourself for who you are. Without a doubt this is an important message to get out to kids in middle and high school, but the moral does strange cultural work in American Born Chinese.
In the world of the graphic novel accept yourself for you who are means that the protagonist Jin Wang must accept his Chinese-ness, just as the Monkey King (the protagonist in a parallel storyline) must resign himself to always being a monkey. Put this way, it’s kind of trite. On a certain fundamental level (we’re talking ‘race’ here, so it’s…genetic?), he can never not be Chinese. The foolishness of the proposition is graphically illustrated by the character’s decision to get a perm (in order to look more like the curly-haired blond boy he idolizes). Needless to say, the results are tragicomic. One girl comments that it makes his hair look like “broccoli.” But is physical appearance really the only thing that we talk about when we talk about race and ethnicity? Of course not. The text suggests that Jin is, in a way, betraying his very essence—indeed, his very soul—in his quest to fit in.
We recall that in the beginning of the story an herbalist’s wife asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. Jin presents her with the robot in his hands (the one illustrated on the book’s cover) and confesses that he wants to be a Transformer. Instead of scoffing at or simply humoring his fanciful answer, the old woman takes it seriously and counsels him thus:
Later on in the text we meet someone who has actually accomplished this feat when it is revealed that (*spoiler*) all-American boy Danny is actually Jin in disguise:
Here is where I really begin to take issue with ABC, because it sure looks like it’s advancing an argument for identitarian politics. Kaufman actually argues to the contrary by explaining how Yang’s text presents Asian American culture as “profoundly hybrid” (and the irony of the Chin-Kee storyline is critical to that reading), but I still dislike how the Transformer metaphor is employed to reinforce the idea of an essential—if not stable—self to whom one has to remain true.
What if we were all Transformers?
Or, to begin with, what if what Jin wanted to escape were not his Chinese-ness but the constant burden of being seen, first and foremost, as Chinese by everyone around him? To be perfectly open, I am coming at this as someone who, like Jin, is Asian American. I was born and raised in the Philippines into my teen years. For several years after I got my green card, I continued to refer to Manila as “home,” and I still have family there whom I visit. Here in the States I cook and eat Filipino food and I participate in Philippine cultural events now and then, though sometimes the identity politicking of the Fil-Am community ends up inadvertently alienating me. I can point to the formative moment, too. In college I was part of a Filipino dance group, of which virtually every Filipino/Filipino-American student on campus was a part (there weren’t that many of us). There was a girl in the group who’d grown up in NYC but identified strongly with her Filipino heritage and was active in the Asian American group on campus. One day we were talking and it came up in conversation that I had lived in the Philippines into my high school years and she was positively shocked. Her reaction: “I’m more Filipino than you!” The accusation (or at least it felt like some sort of rebuke) confused me. What did it mean to be “less Filipino”? Was it my lack of an accent?
Actually, if she saw me around my family, she might be very surprised at how quickly and thickly my accent returns. And this is the beauty of being a Transformer: I am able to slip in and out of multiple ways of presenting myself (let’s call them “identities” for simplicity’s sake) depending on the situation. I am equally capable of consciously performing my Filipino-ness (as in a folk dance) and unconsciously performing it (as when I slip into my accent around family), just as I affect a California twang (or so I’m told) when I’m hanging out with my high school girlfriends, or use Very Big Words when I’m at an academic conference. I am not always only or even primarily “Filipino-American,” and I find that very liberating.
I recognize that ethnic identity informs the lives of many Americans in significant psychic and even material ways, and I want to be clear that I am not advocating any sort of cultural “whitewashing.” I simply wish to point out that for some of “us” (the we here is, roughly, hyphenated Americans), the impulse to turn race/ethnicity from a point of embarrassment into one of pride can sometimes feel like a limitation of another kind. Instead of insisting on being faithful to one’s “true self,” perhaps we should all strive to be “more than meets the eye.”
I think the fact that I’ve dedicated this many column inches to ABC is proof that I still want to think about the text in spite (or maybe because) of my discomfort with it. I don’t think it’s appropriate for my Coming of Age program, but if I have the time to discuss it carefully with an older group of readers, I think it could be very interesting. I think it’s worth at least another read-through. Maybe if I follow the Transformer imagery more closely I won’t feel as if Gene Yang has short-changed the power of that metaphor.