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. (more…)