I included American Born Chinese on the syllabus because I admire its construction--on every level, from the compact layouts to the slippery three-part plot--and because I thought my students would find its perspective on racial alienation and assimilation both familiar and enlightening. I've found in the past that works about racial identity by non-black authors can be a great tool for discussing representations of race in a black classroom with a white professor. They open a kind of third space that allows everybody in the room to approach the issue on more or less equal footing, without as much at stake.
All of those things played out exactly as expected, but I ended up looking at American Born Chinese a lot less favorably than my class did. Much as I admire its construction, I'm not sure I care at all for its message. Or the fact that it has a "message," which is surely part of the problem. Accept yourself for who you are is one of the most banal themes in popular culture (rivalled only by Follow your dreams!) but in this particular book it takes on a sinister insinuation. In this book, accepting yourself the way you are sometimes means accepting that your racial and ethnic identity is as immutable and inescapable as your species, your mortality, your very position in a great chain of being that stretches to the heavens.
The book follows three plots, with the story of student Jin Wang coming of age in 1980s California sandwiched between a retelling of the legend of the Monkey King and a horrific sitcom in which all-American white kid Danny is visited by his cousin Chin-Kee, a living embodiment of every Asian stereotype Danny has tried to suppress or flee. The book initially suggests that the Monkey King and Chin-Kee stories are meant to be taken as symbolic commentaries on Jin Wang's desire to assimilate--an interpretation that persists even after we learn they aren't strictly symbolic.
In the course of condemning internalized racism and self-loathing, Yang analogizes Jin's dilemma to that of the Monkey King, who insists he's a god even after God Himself tells him otherwise and who suffers for his presumption until he learns to accept his simian nature, which sets him on the path to happiness and divine ordination. Working back to Jin, though, the Monkey King's acceptance implies that the ethnic, minority, or immigrant cultural identity is always the foundational one--Jin will always be Chinese, just as the Monkey King will always be a monkey. It's one of those classic comic-book analogies we can only pursue so far before we have to abandon it or accept some pretty unsavory implications, but American Born Chinese never tells us that it's time to bail out.
The best defense I can muster is to say that if you don't like those unsavory implications, you only have to wait a few pages. This is a book of contradictions--of realism and fantasy, cultural isolation and exchange--and every value it holds turns into its opposite. If the use of the Monkey King and Chin-Kee as symbolic commentaries on Jin's story seems trite or predictable, the final chapters will throw you a major curveball. If their essentialism grates, you only have to remember that this is a book in which no identity is stable for long. If you think the finale emphasizes ethnic isolation at the expense of cultural fusion, the book is still filled with characters and stories that cross cultures.
Although that can be a problem too, particularly when Yang takes the Buddha out of the Buddhist epic Journey to the West. Buddha is missing from the Monkey King's story, replaced by a distinctly Christian god (complete with shepherd's crook!) who's served by the animal symbols of the four evangelists. The original journey to the west (to retrieve the Buddha's sutras) is gone too, supplanted by a journey to celebrate the nativity of Christ. Maybe it's supposed to be syncretism, but it sure looks like subordination. Yang spoke about his intentions for the story in a Comics Journal interview, which Ng Suat Tong quotes here: he describes the Christianized myth as a simple combination of stories, but I think the work deviates quite a bit from his stated aims.
That lack of self-consciousness may be the root of the problem. I realized, after my last class on the book, that American Born Chinese didn't rankle because of its analogies or the friendly face they put on their essentialist view of race. This isn't the only book we've read that raises some troubling implications; it's just one of the few that doesn't know what to do with them. Maus has some pretty suspicious metaphors too, and Fun Home trots out its stereotypes in more realistic fashion, but those works invite readers to pick apart their assumptions--Spiegelman pretty much forces us to with all those devices that explode the artificiality and the implicit stereotyping of his animal avatars. American Born Chinese, like Nat Turner, doesn't invite us to question its implications; it may not even know they're there. It's the difference between a book in which the metaphors are supposed to break down and a book you just aren't supposed to think that much about. One can sustain or reward the most rigorous critical analysis, and the other just can't.
None of this rules against teaching American Born Chinese again, by the way; I find these dilemmas a lot more fascinating and productive than the trite messages of self-acceptance that the book advertises as its themes. But I will need to come up with some new ways to problematize this book for classes that have been taught to recognize the expression of racial and ethnic pride as the noblest aims of art--the most unimpeachable way of accepting yourself for who you are.