American Born Chinese is a critically acclaimed graphic novel by Asian American writer/illustrator Gene Yang, which centers around what at first seem like three very different narratives. The first is a superhero-themed retelling of a beloved classic tale from Chinese mythology, the story of the kung-fu practicing Monkey King. The second is a realistic, contemporary story about a young Asian American boy, and his struggles to fit in at an almost wholly white school. The third and final narrative is a sitcom about a white boy named Danny, and the mischief caused in his life by the yearly visits of his cousin “Chin-Kee,” a walking conglomeration of every possible offensive American stereotype about Asians. One of the most striking features of the book is the way Yang swiftly, unexpectedly and yet credibly brings together the three narratives at the end, revealing them to be linked not merely thematically but also as facets of a single unified storyline.
(1) Nod to Artifice: Although the cartoon format is highly contrived to begin with, Yang further heightens the sense of artifice with the framing device for his third narrative, which is presented as an American sitcom, complete with an intrusive laugh track.
(2) Classic Structure: Although Yang’s triple narrative structure is nothing if not innovative and unique, the three narratives considered separately all have familiar structures –the first story is patterned after the classic myth it borrows from, the second has elements of a teenage romantic comedy, and the last is a parody of a typical sitcom episode. In addition, the larger story arc can be considered as having a traditional three-act structure, with the caveat that the three acts are not presented in a linear progression.
(3) Transcontexual and Iconic Elements: The most notable transcontextual elements are the Monkey King, an icon of traditional Chinese myth transposed to a number of alien settings throughout the book, and his counterpart Chin-Kee, a monstrous being uniting a host of iconically offensive stereotypes. Other, less prominent icons include the herbalist’s wife, who represents the archetypal figure of the wise but sinister old woman, and a wide variety of pop culture references and icons, including Transformer toys, a high school named after a racially insensitive cartoonist, a reference to American Idol non-singer William Hung, and a cartoon representation of a popular YouTube video featuring two young Asian lip-syncers.
(4) Moments of Genuine Emotion and Significance: Stripped of its trappings, the heart of American Born Chinese is a starkly honest story that will be both familiar and relatable to anyone who has ever sacrificed some portion of his or her identity in order to fit in –which is to say, everyone.
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