Is it so bad to grow up Asian in America? One might be forgiven for asking upon encountering “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel that, with its dark exploration of Asian-American adolescence, won last year’s Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature and was also a finalist in its genre for a National Book Award.
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE
By Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien.
233 pp. First Second/Roaring Brook Press. Paper, $16.95. (Ages 12 and up)
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
17 Comics From an Unpleasant Age.
Edited by Ariel Schrag.
210 pp. Viking. Paper, $18.99. (Ages 12 and up)
After all, Asians are widely perceived to have it easier than other minorities in the United States, especially African-Americans, whose coming-of-age struggles have been chronicled for decades by writers like Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson and Sharon G. Flake. But in “American Born Chinese,” Gene Luen Yang makes growing up Chinese in California seem positively terrifying.
The narrative is divided into three parts: the coming-of-age tale of the Asian-American Jin Wang, which centers on his relationship with his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun; the fantastical tale of a Monkey King who does not want to be a monkey; and the deeply disturbing story of Chin-Kee, a grotesque who takes every Chinese stereotype and wraps it into a leering, drooling package.
Yang seems to use Chin-Kee to express his deepest fears of how others perceive Asian-Americans. In the book’s more realistic sections, Wang’s friend Wei-Chen is embarrassingly “fresh off the boat”; Chin-Kee is less embarrassing than monstrous. He comes to the United States for an extended visit with Danny, his blond, blue-eyed cousin, and enters with a shout of “Harro Amellica!” (The author uses Chin-Kee’s L/R switch to great effect — at one point he says he’s having a “lorricking good time” in his new school.) He wants to bind the feet of Danny’s attractive study partner. His eyes are pupil-less slits. And he dominates Danny’s classes, reminding us that the image of a Chinese student filling out all the SAT bubbles correctly can be as damaging as one eating “flied cat gizzards.”
More disquieting than Chin-Kee himself is the reaction of his American peers. They accept him with blank, idealized political correctness. Only when he begins to engage in truly disgusting behavior do they turn on him. It is as if Chin-Kee is trying to make others despise him.
While Chin-Kee’s coolie outfit harks back to the 19th century, Yang — who teaches high school computer science in San Francisco — also takes from modern sources. In one scene, Chin-Kee dances on a table singing “She Bangs” in the style of William Hung, the Berkeley student who turned a ridiculed “American Idol” audition into a brief singing career in 2004. Hung’s hooks were his geeky appearance and accent; his music video soaked him in bling and surrounded him with backup dancers to drive home the point that he would never have bling or backup dancers.
“American Born Chinese” blends Chinese and American cultures in inventive, unexpected ways. Structurally, its interwoven stories form a trilogy — a familiar Western construction — but the tale of the Monkey King is dominated by groups of four: four Major Heavenly Disciplines of kung fu; four emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence (an invention of Yang’s). Thus four, a cursed number in Chinese numerology, dogs the Monkey King until he comes to terms with his identity. At the end of his story, in the book’s most clever ethnic synthesis, he turns four to his favor, becoming one of four emissaries to the West who replace the wise men in their pilgrimage to see Jesus.
This image of the blending of Asian-American and white cultures will be tested in the coming years. As the white population in America falls below 50 percent, around 2060 (according to census projections), the definition of “white” is once again set to expand as it did for Italian- and Irish-Americans. Who will get to join the club? Or will the club finally fall to pieces?
Caught up in these complex questions, it is easy to forget that “American Born Chinese” also functions well as a comic book. (Many graphic novelists are taking back this once-disparaging term.) The art blends the clean lines of anime with a bold American palette. Yang is equally adept at depicting a high school cafeteria and the Monkey King’s fantastical realm.
“American Born Chinese” is sometimes needlessly crass — it opens with a joke about breasts and peaches — and it is hampered by a confusing ending that stretches to resolve the three tales. But with Chin-Kee’s striking embodiment of ethnic confusion and self-betrayal, Gene Luen Yang has created that rare article: a youthful tale with something new to say about American youth.
Questions of identity are also at the heart of “Stuck in the Middle,” a collection of comics about junior high school edited by Ariel Schrag, a writer and artist. Here, though, instead of race, issues of morality and sexuality dominate the narrative.
Some of the stories — Lauren Weinstein’s horrible time at a horseback-riding camp, Daniel Clowes’s detached memories of summer with his grandparents — are hilarious. Others, like Eric Enright’s tale of self-hatred, remind us that the concerns of junior high are often far from funny. Schrag cleverly plays up this contrast by alternating the stories, suggesting the mood swings of adolescence itself.
The anxieties of sexual and social identity are to be expected in “Stuck in the Middle.” What surprises is that one of the best of the stories, Aaron Renier’s “Simple Machines,” tackles the search for one’s professional self. In telling how he came to make comics, Renier reminds the reader that discovering what you’re good at is perhaps the greatest teenage joy.
“Stuck in the Middle” is weakest when its contributors ignore the structure of the short story and instead present what seem like excerpts from longer works. But by and large it is excellent, and the variety of the art ensures that the reader never gets bored.