American Born Chinese | Study Guide

Gene Luen Yang

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American Born Chinese | Themes


Identity and Acceptance

The struggle to find—and accept—one's personal identity is at the core of American Born Chinese. The Monkey King, for example, insists that he is not a monkey but a king, a deity, a kung fu master, and the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. To demonstrate his power and strength, he even does bodily harm to gods and demons and picks a fight with Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the embodiment of God. However, no matter what he does to prove that he is more than a lowly primate, others still insist on calling him a monkey. "I say that you are a monkey, therefore, you are a monkey," Tze-Yo-Tzuh tells the Monkey King on the stone bridge. Tze-Yo-Tzuh made all the creatures in the world and "do[es] not make mistakes." As the Monkey King tells Jin Wang, it took him 500 years underneath a mountain of rubble to "realiz[e] how good it is to be a monkey." One good aspect is being small. Giving up his ego shrank him back to his regular size, which allowed him to slip out of his rocky confines. He remains as intelligent and powerful as ever and the only thing his self-acceptance cost him was his anger.

Jin is also burdened by overwhelming feelings of anger. He dislikes being Asian American because it makes him a target for the racist bullies at his school. Even though Wei-Chen is his best friend, Jin frequently reminds Wei-Chen—and himself—that they're nothing alike. "You and I are not alike. We're nothing alike," he tells Wei-Chen after kissing Suzy Nakamura. To Jin, there's a big difference between being an immigrant—like Wei-Chen—and being the American-born son of immigrants, as he is. Jin clings to his American identity as if it were a life jacket keeping him afloat in the unforgiving sea of adolescence. After his fight with Wei-Chen at the end of seventh grade, Jin completely abandons the Asian side of himself and turns into Danny, an average white teenager. Yet when the Monkey King arrives in the form of Chin-Kee four years later, Jin still isn't comfortable with his public persona. A loner who has difficulty making friends, he has the same insecurities he did as when he considered himself Asian American. Moreover, denying his true identity made Jin very unhappy. It isn't until he reconnects with Wei-Chen in the Chinese restaurant that he starts to look and feel like himself again. His talk with the Monkey King helps him accept who he really is. His willingness to sit in a Chinese diner every day for a month while looking for his former best friend is a sign of that acceptance.

Cultural Assimilation

Cultural assimilation occurs when new members of a group become indistinguishable from other members of the group. It's basically a grand term for what is known as "fitting in." In American Born Chinese, identity and cultural assimilation go hand in hand. Both Jin and the Monkey King have trouble accepting themselves as they are because they want to fit in with another group. The Monkey King wants to be considered the equal of the gods, goddesses, deities, and demons that populate the underworld and heaven. Jin simply doesn't want his appearance and heritage to make him a target for racist bullies.

As a young boy, Jin liked his life in Chinatown. He and his friends all looked the same and shared the same language and customs. However, Jin's parents wanted him to assimilate into mainstream American life more fully than they had as immigrants. Jin's mother indicates this through the story about the little boy who mimicked the behaviors of those who lived in each of the pair's new neighborhoods. Like many immigrant families, Jin's parents want their child to have a better and more prosperous life than they would have had in their native country. To achieve that, they try to give him the quintessential (white) American childhood by moving to a mostly white, suburban neighborhood. Once in school, Jin goes ever farther by perming his hair to look like Greg's naturally curly hair. However, as Wei-Chen puts it, Jin's perm makes him "look like a broccoli." By trying to fit in, Jin only makes himself stand out even more.

Jin's experiences in American Born Chinese show that assimilation can be difficult and perhaps not always appropriate. When Jin fully commits himself to assimilation, he becomes Danny—a prototypical white teen—and refuses to associate with his Chinese cousin while also cutting off his Asian and Asian American friends. However, he's still just as insecure and lonely as ever. It takes a visit from the Monkey King to remind him that he did fit in once—when he was still hanging out with Wei-Chen and Suzy. Even his short-lived relationship with Amelia was a sign that Jin could fit in with his white classmates without completely reinventing himself and denying his true identity. It's a fine balance that takes Jin a long time to figure out.

Racism and Stereotyping

Jin, Suzy, and Wei-Chen endure a lot of racist taunts from their white classmates in American Born Chinese. However, they also have to deal with more subtle forms of racism. When Jin moves to the suburbs, his teacher, Mrs. Greeder, automatically assumes that Jin and his family "moved to [the] neighborhood all the way from China." The same thing happens to Wei-Chen when he joins Jin's class in fifth grade. There are two forms of racism exhibited here. One is that all people of Chinese descent were born in China. The other is that Asian countries and cultures are interchangeable. Wei-Chen is from Taiwan, which is an island off the coast of mainland China. Likewise, Suzy Nakamura is Japanese, but her classmates assume that she and Jin should date because they're "the same." Timmy exhibits overt racism in his declaration that, "My momma says Chinese people eat dogs." Mrs. Greeder is more subtly racist when she observes that Jin's family "probably stopped that sort of thing" once they moved to the United States. Even though she thinks she's supporting Jin, she's reinforcing a racist stereotype.

Author Gene Luen Yang also addresses racism through the character of Chin-Kee. According to Yang, Chin-Kee is an amalgamation of every stereotype Westerners have about Asians. Chin-Kee is drawn with exaggerated features and an outdated hairstyle and clothing. He uses Chinese takeout cartons as luggage, has difficulty pronouncing certain consonants, and lusts after Jin's white female classmates. He eats cats, sings badly, and urinates in someone's can of Coke. Each of Chin-Kee's outlandish actions is designed to startle readers—making them reconsider stereotypes they may hold and how stereotypes affect their view of Asians and Asian Americans. Yang's goal isn't to end racism and discrimination against people of Asian descent—although that would be nice. He instead acknowledges stereotypes held by Westerners and asks readers to examine their role in perpetuating them. That is the first step in combatting racial inequality.

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