As part of my growing interest in China, and my heritage as a whole (and loving a good graphic novel), I treated myself to Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006). It has been praised for positively adding to the debate of cultural identity, and has been featured in many lists for ‘best graphic novels’, and rightfully so. American Born Chinese is not just a great read but also provides an incredible insight into the not too often told story of how Chinese Americans – in fact Chinese people everywhere born outside of their parents’ country – struggle to understand the cultural differences, and sometimes cultural conflicts, with which they are born and live with.
The narrative follows three storylines. The first is Jin Wang, a young boy whose parents move him from San Francisco to the suburbs where most of the people are white. The second recounts the tale of Sun Wukong, the mischievous monkey king who is trapped under a mountain by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of the universe. The third sees white American Danny deal with a visit from his walking, talking racial stereotype of a cousin, Chin-Kee (yes it’s pronounced ‘chinky’).
American Born Chinese tackles very real issues that are prominent today. Perhaps most obvious is the character of Chin-Kee, the symbol of historical racial stereotyping by Western media. Chin-Kee speaks in broken Chinglish, resembles the nineteenth century ‘coolie’ stereotype, and wants to find the perfect white American woman to carry his child. The racialisation of Chin-Kee may seem over the top and outlandish, but these profiles are very much present in today’s media, often leading to the emasculation and othering of Chinese men/people. Even so-called ‘positive’ stereotypes of Chin-Kee, that is to say his top performance in classes, can actually be negative to the overall perception of Chinese people. Not all Chinese people perform well in classes and to assume so can be detrimental to the development of these children.
Yang’s use of the traditional folk story of Sun Wukong is brilliant for a number of reasons. It’s a sweet callback to a tale that is an integral part of Chinese literature and history. Not only that, Yang makes the story accessible to a younger audience – Sun Wukong is told he cannot come into a gathering of deities because he has no shoes (he’s a monkey, after all). He assumes the form of a human-monkey, thinking this is more superior, and exacts revenge on the deities who scorned him. He is then banished beneath a mountain for centuries, until he realises that only in taking his true form as a monkey can he escape.
The underlying theme of the Sun Wukong narrative is identity crisis. In his attempt to appease others he becomes something that he’s not (read: becoming ‘white’, to fit into mostly white areas and crowds – and this tends to be a bigger issue than it should be for most American or British born Chinese people). That’s the real moral that Yang’s graphic novel wants to highlight – every child of immigrants or parents who aren’t from the dominant culture of that country needs to acknowledge, understand and appropriate their heritage. That isn’t to say they need to be more Chinese, they need to hang out with more Chinese people, they need to dress and act ‘Chinese’ – whatever that means. Its about becoming emotionally and mentally aware of who you are, who you’re not and why those things are okay.
This brings me nicely onto my phrase of the year, ‘third culture kid’. A third culture kid (TCK) refers to children who were raised outside of their parent’s country and culture. Their first culture refers to the culture of their parents, the second refers to the culture of the country they were brought up in, and the third culture is the combination of both those cultures (or rather their attempts to). This term infers that a displacement of identity is present – and for most TCKs, including myself, the struggle is real.
Historically in both Chinese and English communities, there’s an omnipresent necessity to label yourself and others (‘you’re not really Chinese’, ‘when we won the war’, ‘you’re practically a white person’ and so forth). This is a problem for TCKs, because we’re equally of both cultures and not of both cultures. Ideally the third culture is a manifestation of this new but just as important alignment of cultures, being both Chinese and American, or Chinese and British. But sometimes, a tug of war game exists internally and externally within each TCK, which means that some people will feel obliged to be more of one world than another – and that shouldn’t be the case.
The point of American Born Chinese and the real thing we should be teaching young people today is that they should start assimilating their own culture. One, not wholly separate from the history and intrinsic qualities of their race, religion and culture, and one not completely stifled by them either. It’s about understanding the reasons why you are who you are, embracing those qualities, and owning it. That is why American Born Chinese is essential reading for anyone who has ever felt stranded between two worlds.
Originally posted in The Banderola (Feb 2015)