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April 26, 2010


Alexandre Su

It's been quite a while since I read the book, but I definitely had some of the same issues with the work. I read it much closer to its publication, when Gene Yang was making the rounds, and at the time it struck me as very strange that he didn't at least anticipate some of the criticism regarding the Christian appropriation of a Buddhist story or some of the other reactions. As it is, elements that might have been as a points of debate of artistic choice, come across as shortcomings in a story so personalized it read to me as myopic. Mind you, there's a certain leeway that it had because of being an entrant in an identity literature that's less formed, where there's a paucity of comparison even if one were to look beyond comics. Maus had a creator who was definitely conscious of making a work that was going to be compared to other takes on the Jewish experience, whereas American Born Chinese isn't really dialoguing with anything else.

How did the students take the appropriation of Journey to the West? I'm guessing that it's not a super-familiar work, but I imagine how the author picks, chooses, and alters a work to suit his purposes could be a big topic. The fact that trading in the Chinese with stereotypes narrative for the Christian one doesn't actually leave much room for identity seems in sharpest relief there.


None of my students showed any familiarity with Journey to the West, although one did recognize the four animal symbols and was wondering what they were doing in a story she thought was authentically Buddhist. Most of the class seemed surprised to learn about the Christianization of the Monkey King's story but I don't know if that problematized the book for them as it did for me. A lot of the class seemed perfectly willing to approach the book on its preferred terms as a feel-good ethnic parable, something I'll need to work on before I teach it again.

I'd also say that there's enough of a tradition in Chinese American literature that Yang could certainly have chosen to interact with it if he wanted to. I'm not certain that he needed to--for that matter, I'm not certain that he hasn't, if only indirectly, since he works some of the same magical realist territory as Kingston and company--but he seems more interested in responding to American popular culture's view of Asians. That's fine with me; I thought those parts worked well (although the pop-culture references have dated quickly enough that many of my students didn't get them--authors beware). I see what you mean about the myopic focus, but if Journey to the West didn't correct it I don't know that The Joy Luck Club would have fared any better.

Thanks for writing, Alexandre.

Alexandre Su

Thanks for writing this series, I've been enjoying it. Growing up Chinese American, this entry is the one I relate to personally, so it gets my affectionate dander up.

I probably muddled my ideas up there. I don't actually think Yang needed to reference other works directly. I was thinking more about how familiar your students might be to the Chinese American experience and so on, and how those thoughts would dialogue with the book. It's not so much that Maus speaks directly about other works, but that even if it didn't, the audience might be familiar with The Diary of Anne Frank or other things that even without a personal relationship, it has some base to build off. You're absolutely right that there is some literature it could have referenced, but as you say Joy Luck Club isn't any more likely to be known. I imagine that beyond something about railroads, American Born Chinese is received so well in part because for most, it's the first approach to the topic Chinese American identity. It's building it whole and not contrasting with anything, mostly. I could be underestimating people's exposure thought, overweighting my own personal expectations and experience.

I wish I could come up with an example of a familiar story changed that changes its point
just so, and alters something as deeply held as religion and its tenets--even if Journey to the West isn't really equal to the story of the resurrection. Still, while not Christian and I can imagine how it can supersede all other aspects of one's identity, even if the act of altering a story feels like an act of denial, almost like passing. But the American Born part means Jin Wang is 2nd generation, and his homeland's culture can feel just as distant and invisible to him as it is to strangers. The strongest scene to me is the one where the one insult puts Suzy, Wei-Chen, and Jin Wang all in the same box. The rest, the magical realist part, is more the flow of how Jin constructed his self. I think maybe Suzy and Wei-Chen need their own books.


Ah, I see what you mean--I agree, American Born Chinese probably gets some leeway for being the first book about Chinese American identity (or certainly the first comic about it) for many of its readers. I wouldn't hold that against Yang as that's hardly his fault, but it means things like the Christianization of Journey to the West will slip right by a lot of people.

In the end I don't think it's fair to Yang to burden him with the responsibility of being The Only Chinese American Graphic Novel, but I do wish he'd paid more attention to the implications of his metaphors, and I can only hope more readers will do the same.

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