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Comic Book / American Born Chinese

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Timmy: My momma says Chinese people eat dogs.
Jin's teacher: Now be nice, Timmy! I'm sure Jin doesn't do that! In fact, Jin's family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!

Written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese is a Graphic Novel dealing with the trials and tribulations of Asians attempting to integrate into American culture.

The story begins by following three characters:

  • The first is the Monkey King (Great Sage Equal of Heaven), who is shamed after being kicked out of a celestial dinner party for being a monkey (and not wearing shoes). He becomes obsessed with earning the respect of the Heavenly Hosts as a result.
  • The second is Jin Wang, a second-generation immigrant from China heavily influenced by Chinese culture. After moving from San Francisco to a new city, he awkwardly tries to integrate with the all-white students and staff at school, despite their stereotypical view of Asians.
  • The third is a white American boy named Danny, who is burdened by annual visits of his cousin Chin-Kee, an embodiment of every negative Chinese stereotype ever. Chin-Kee's cringeworthy behavior has forced Danny to change schools in the past to escape association with him.

While each story arc works well on its own and appear to be independent, by the end all three cleverly converge into a climax that affirm the need to embrace one's heritage and Be Yourself.

Released in 2006, it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Awards (becoming the first graphic novel recognized by the National Book Foundation) and won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award.

A Disney+ series focusing on Jin Wang and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton premiered on May 24, 2023.

See also Level Up, another graphic novel by the same author about a young Chinese-American man trying to find his way in the world.

This book provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Actual Pacifist: The monk Wong Lai-Tsao, who won't even defend himself when attacked by monsters who want to eat him.
  • An Aesop: It is pointless to hate yourself for what you were born as, deny that it is part of you, or struggle against it. It's best to Be Yourself.
  • Allegorical Character: Chin-Kee represents Jin's frustration with his Chinese roots and how he perceives the way other people, namely his white peers, perceive him because of them. Every year, he comes to Danny's school and ruins his life. No matter what Danny (Jin) does, he can't escape him, because Chin-Kee is part of him whether he likes it or not.
  • All-Loving Hero: Wong Lai-Tsao, who puts up with three asshole peasants demanding something out of him, and doesn't complain once. This is the reason why he's chosen to bring the three gifts west.
  • Anachronic Order: Switches between the Monkey King story, set thousands of years ago, and two storylines set in modern times.
  • Angel Unaware: Wei-Chen is actually the Monkey King's son, and a divine being undergoing a trial on Earth. He falls from grace because of the emotional wounding he suffered at Jin's hands. Fortunately, the situation does seem to be resolving itself at the end.
  • Arranged Marriage: In elementary school, Suzy was the only other Asian student in Jin's class. Their classmates asked if they were related, then started rumors that their parents had arranged for them to get married on Suzy's thirteenth birthday. As a result, Suzy and Jin avoided each other as much as possible.
  • Asian and Nerdy: Wei-Chen Sun has glasses and does pretty well in school. Chin-Kee is an exaggerated version, proving ludicrously accomplished in every possible area of human knowledge, except for properly accenting his English and using proper etiquette in public.
  • Asian Buck Teeth: One of the negative stereotypes embodied by Chin-Kee. After all, he's just a badly made human disguise.
  • Asians Eat Pets:
    • During Jin Wang's first day of school, Timmy, a white classmate, mentions how his mom told him that Chinese people eat dogs. The teacher, who is also white, tells Timmy that Jin probably doesn't do that, and assures him that he and his family stopped doing so after immigrating to the US, highlighting how hurtful anti-Asian beliefs manifest even in peers with no actual malice towards Jin. Later, another white classmate mocks Jin during lunch by suggesting that he's busy eating Lassie.
    • Walking Chinese stereotype Ching-Kee eats cat gizzards for lunch (yes, we know cats don't have gizzards, it's a reference to a notorious anti-Chinese cartoon by the US editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant).
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Chin-Kee, to a ludicrous degree. Wei-Chen averts it: he does have a thick accent, but it's an actual accent rather than a bizarre exaggeration. And Chin-Kee was faking the accent; it's unknown if Wei-Chen was, because after The Reveal, he mostly speaks Chinese. However, if his father speaks English accent-less, he probably does too.
  • Atop a Mountain of Corpses: Banged-up Heavenly Hosts, anyway, after the Monkey King is done venting on them after that disastrous dinner party.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The Monkey King's "Giant Form" kung fu discipline lets him increase in size to gigantic proportions.
  • Author Avatar: The book tells the story of a second-generation chinese immigrant named Gene Yang- er, rather, Jin Wang.
  • Bait the Dog: Greg initially seems to be the one white boy at Jin's school who isn't a racist little shit. But when Jin goes out with his crush Amelia, Greg is the one who strongly urges them to stop, wanting her to "make good life choices", directly leading to Jin's broken friendship with Wei-Chen and the events of the Chin-Kee plot.
  • Barefoot Cartoon Animal: The Monkey King is prevented from entering the celestial dinner party because he wears no shoes, whereupon he strives to make himself more human like in his dress and appearance. It's notable that many of the other animals who were let in, like dragons and fish, actually wear worse shoes.
  • Battle Aura: Appears whenever characters, including the Monkey King, use kung fu.
  • Be Yourself: The main Aesop of the book, illustrated in multiple ways.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Jin Wang is this to Wei Chen Sun.
  • Calling Your Attacks: Spoofed when Chin-Kee attacks Danny; his attacks are named after Chinese dishes.
  • Coming of Age Story: Jin's story, including the portions of it when he's Danny.
  • Cool Shades: Wei-Chen wears them after revealing his true persona. He also drives a Cool Car.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: The Monkey King admits to Jin, when Jin asks what he needs to do knowing that Wei-Chen is the Monkey King's son, that he wouldn't have stayed stuck under that mountain for years if he had simply remained a little monkey.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Chin-Kee knows kung-fu. Because he's Asian... and a monkey god famed for his mastery.
  • Deal with the Devil: Used metaphorically; Jin is told by an old herbalist that he can be anything he wants if he gives up his soul. After destroying Wei-Chen Sun's faith in humanity out of petty spite, he transforms into Danny.
  • Did You Get a New Haircut?: After the Monkey King uses his shapeshifting powers to look more like a man, one of his monkey subjects remarks that he looks different somehow, and asks if it's a new haircut.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The Monkey King beats up the Hosts of Heaven on a regular basis.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: No one steps in when the Monkey King declares war on the party host and guests for snubbing him. That is because they deserved it. Interference only happens when the Monkey King can't stop.
  • The Ditz: The monkeys of Flower-Fruit-Island are adorably idiotic.
    "Would your majesty like a banana?"
  • Double Consciousness: Played with through the graphic novel medium. The story begins with separate plot threads for Chinese Jin and American Danny. When Jin wishes to become Americanized, he turns into Danny, casting Danny's earlier exploits in a new light.
  • Double Entendre:
    • At the celestial dinner party:
      "Your peaches are looking especially plump today!"
    • And in Jin's story:
      Timmy: (after Amelia raises her hand) What for, Amelia? You can pet my lizard any time you want.
      Greg: I don't know, Timmy. You do a pretty good job of that yourself.
  • Ethnic Scrappy: In-Universe. Danny hates Chin-Kee, who ruins his life so badly that he has to change schools every time he shows up. According to Word of God, his one regret was not making Chin-Kee even more offensive, saying "I feel like I didn't exaggerate him enough. If I had exaggerated him a little more, then maybe people would not find him cute."
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Wei-Chen suffers this at the hands of Jin, who ruins their friendship by kissing his girl and insulting him. This has a number of tragic consequences.
  • Excrement Statement: Trying to prove that he can escape from Tze-Yo-Tzuh's reach, Monkey King flies to the far end of the universe and finds five golden pillars. He writes his name on the fourth one, then pees on it. Turns out they were Tze-Yo-Tzuh's fingers.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: The Monkey King engages in this after he's snubbed at the party. It gets so bad that a higher being has to interfere.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jin gets a perm to appear more Americanized.
    Wei Chen: Why is his hair a broccoli?
  • The Faceless: Jin and Danny's parents always have their faces partially or completely hidden. Subverted when Danny tells his parents that Chin-Kee has left and their faces are finally shown, revealing that Danny's parents are Jin's parents (since Danny and Jin are the same person).
  • Forceful Kiss: Jin plants one on Suzy, Wei-Chen's girlfriend.
  • Foreign Queasine: Chin-Kee eats fried cats' gizzards. It's also a veiled Take That! against Pat Oliphant.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The monkey in the biology lab is very fond of Wei-Chen, who can tell at once it's a male and not a female.
    • The future Friar Sand appears at the heavenly dinner party the Monkey King tries to get into.
    • Amelia and Melanie look almost identical to each other, and are both lusted after by the protagonists of the segments they appear in, implying that Jin Has a Type.
  • Frame Break: When the Monkey King leaves the universe, flying "through the boundaries of reality itself", he breaks through the frame of the panel he's in. The story then switches to one illustration per page with no panel borders until he re-enters reality, at which point normal panels resume.
  • Funny Foreigner: Chin-Kee. Jin's friend Wei Chen Sun is also this to a smaller degree.
  • Gratuitous English: When Wei Chen first appears, he's wearing a shirt that reads "Robot Happy".
  • Has a Type: Jin lusts after both Amelia and Melanie, who look almost identical.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: In a deliberate invocation of sitcom tropes, Danny's parents are never shown on panel. At least, not until he's turned back into Jin, and there's no point in hiding them.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: In the tale of the Monkey King, all the Buddhist elements are replaced by Christian equivalentsdetails , though not really in an unpleasant way. This is done deliberately to show the blending of cultures that produces Jin and which he needs to accept, and to reflect the author's experiences, as he is himself a Christian that still values his Chinese heritage.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Occurs in a sickening way when two kids drop a number of Asian ethnic slurs on the playground.
    "Hey, I chink it's getting a little nippy out here."
    "You're right! I'm getting gook bumps!"
  • Hyperlink Story: A textbook example of the form. The book revolves around three seemingly separate plots: Jin's struggle to fit in with his white peers, Danny's struggle to shake off his association with his extremely stereotypical Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, and a retelling of the first portion of Journey to the West. In the end, it turns out that Danny is a disguise that Jin took on out of internalized Sinophobia, Chin-Kee is actually the Monkey King from Journey to the West in disguise, and Wei Chen, the Taiwanese boy who Jin fell out with shortly before becoming Danny, is the Monkey King's son. The story ends with the Monkey King helping Jin reaccept his Chinese identity and make amends with Wei Chen.
  • The Hyena: Chin-Kee laughs all the time.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: The Monkey King is a textbook example. He is simultaneously enraged at the mockery and bullying he suffers for being a monkey, lashing out at anyone who insults him with overwhelming force, and desperate to conceal his monkey-ness at every opportunity, whether trying to get the smell of fur out of his quarters, transforming into a humanoid shape, or constantly modifying his size to be the tallest person in the room.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Jin's well-meaning third-grade teacher, who messes up his name and tells the class he's immigrated from China (not being aware of title of the comic she's in). Greg is also this by telling Jin he's not good enough for Amelia.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Monkey King, Great Sage Equal of Heaven.
  • Ironic Echo: The Monkey King is barred from a celestial party for not wearing shoes (and being a monkey). When he becomes the disciple of the monk Wong Lai-Tsao, he is told that they do not wear shoes for their journey.
  • It Was with You All Along: The Monkey King frees himself from being trapped under a mountain of rock by releasing his shape-shifting kung fu and reverting to his original (smaller) monkey form.
  • Japanese Ranguage: Chin-Kee talks like this all the time, to a ludicrous extent. He inevitably reverses any "l"s and "r"s in anything he says, even within an individual word, or when actually saying "R" to solve an equation! When he drops it for a brief moment, it's right before Danny/Jin breaks through his disguise.
  • Jerkass:
    • The ungrateful vagrants treated by Wong Lai-Tsao, who insulted him even as he fed them and tended to them every day. They're actually emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, as part of a Secret Test of Character.
    • To an extent, the Monkey King, or as he likes to be called, the "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven." While the insult visited on him in the opening was pretty poor form, he copes by becoming the biggest bully of all. However, as in the original tale, he gets better later.
    • Several Anglo characters behave in this way toward the Asian-American protagonists, the other students in particular. Among them is Timmy, a white kid whose first reaction to Jin joining his third-grade class is to make a racist comment about how his mom said that Chinese people eat dogs. By high school, he's throwing around anti-Asian slurs like they're going out of style.
  • Karma Houdini: Greg doesn't suffer any negative consequences for breaking up Amelia and Jin after their first date. Jin instead engages in Misplaced Retribution against Wei-Chen.
  • Laugh Track: Danny's scenes are accompanied by one, in the style of an old sitcom, done as onomatopoeia. They are often at deliberately-uncomfortable moments.
  • Losing Your Head: The Monkey King continues to talk even after being beheaded while demonstrating his mastery of the kung-fu discipline of immunity to wounds.
  • Magic Realism: The Jin story, which starts as a mostly-realistic, if exaggerated, story of growing up as a second-generation Chinese in America, but later includes physical transformation into a white kid, and a visit from the Monkey King to straighten the protagonist out.
  • The Magnificent: "Say it!" "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven!"
  • Meaningful Name:
    • While we don’t see it in the story, the Chinese character that is most likely used for Jin’s name is this 仁, which means “humaneness or kindness”. The character, 仁, is drawn to represent a man connecting heaven and earth. Considering that Jin makes a connection with the Monkey King and his son and the overall growth Jin has in the story before becoming a better person, this fits him really well.
    • Danny is short for Daniel, which means "God is my judge". Danny/Jin is taken down a several pegs by the Monkey King who is an Emissary of Tze-Yo-Tzuh.
    • Wei-Chen Sun is actually the son of the Monkey King. What’s the Monkey King’s name in Chinese? Sun Wukong.
  • Misplaced Retribution:
    • When Jin is convinced to stop seeing Amelia, he blames Wei-Chen for it rather than any of the racist expectations other people had fostered onto them.
    • Averted with the Monkey King's role as Chin-Kee. After the ruse is broken Jin asks if that was done in retribution for the King's son falling from grace because of Jin's treatment of him. The Monkey King explains that that's not the case at all; he assumed the form of Chin-Kee purely as a means for Jin to come to terms with himself and while he is disappointed at Wei-Chen's actions, those were his decisions to make and Jin isn't accountable for them.
  • Not His Sled: The story's version of Journey to the West takes some sharp diversions from the traditional version. First when the Monkey King is challenged by Tze-Yo-Tzuh—who is heavily implied to be the Abrahamic God—instead of the Buddha. Then later when the Monkey King's journey turns out to involve traveling westward to Bethlehem to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.
  • Offhand Backhand: Chin-Kee/The Monkey King does this during the fight scene near the end.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Danny finds he eventually has to change schools after bringing Chin-Kee with him for a week, so bad does the teasing and abuse get from all of his classmates and former friends who can only see him as Chin-Kee's cousin.
  • Phenotype Stereotype: Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Danny is a stereotypical All-American Boy. This is deliberate, since Jin chose to become him to fit in.
  • Physical God: The Monkey King, Great Sage Equal of Heaven. Tze-Yo-Tzuh also puts in an appearance.
  • Punny Name: "Chin-Kee" is a pun on the Chinese slur "chink."
  • Race Fetish: Chin-Kee, in a deliberate invocation of every racist sterotype ever about foreigners "stealing our women", is always on the prowl for an "Amelican" girl so that he can, translated from the original accent, "bind [her] feet and bear Chin-Kee's children".
  • Racial Face Blindness: Several elementary school students think Suzy and Jin are engaged by their parents, even though she's Japanese-American, he's second-generation Chinese, and neither has met the other before.
  • Racial Transformation: Jin transforms into a white boy named Danny after a metaphorical Deal with the Devil. He later changes back into Jin after punching Ching-Kee who reveals himself to be the Monkey King.
  • The Reveal: Happens three times: Danny is actually Jin, Chin-Kee is actually the Monkey King, and Wei-Chen Sun is the Monkey King's son.
  • Same Race Means Related: Jin and Suzy are initially assumed to be related by their classmates simply because both are East Asian, even though Jin's Chinese and Suzy's Japanese.
  • Secret Test of Character: Both in the retelling of the Journey to the West and in the present, with Jin and Wei-Chen. The monk who sets out on the journey passes his by being kind even in the face of the abuse and ingratitude of those he's helping. Jin fails his, and ends up estranging Wei-Chen from humanity and becoming "Danny."
  • Self-Duplication: The Monkey King learns the "Hair-Into-Clones" kung fu discipline.
  • Shapeshifter: The Monkey King learns a kung fu discipline to do this, and uses it to fuel his Inferiority Superiority Complex. Notably, he assumes a tall, human-like shape constantly and frequently increases its height in a pathological attempt to be bigger than everyone else. In a deliberate parallel that might or might not be purely symbolic, Jin also transforms into Danny after betraying Wei-Chan's trust, and resumes his original shape when Sun Wukong convinces him to.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: The Transformers that are given a Shout-Out are pretty distinctively patterned after their G1 selves (bar the much larger and more articulate Optimus). Though they go unnamed and aren't drawn with a lot of detail it's very clear that the toy designs of the 80s characters for Sunstreaker, Prowl, Megatron, and the Seekers are more or less recreated.
  • Spoonerism: Right before watching a movie with Amelia, Jin notes that the theater "just lurned off the tights".
  • Stating the Simple Solution: When Lai-Tsao asks the Monkey King to come out from under the mountain he's been buried under for five hundred years, the Monkey King angrily notes that the seal above him prevents him from using his powers to do so. Lai-Tsao points out that returning to his much-smaller true form would be a release of kung-fu, not the exercise of it. The Monkey King is struck speechless and angry by this (completely true) revelation, to the point of stubbornly refusing to do so even as the monk is about to die in front of him. Symbolically, it represents letting go of his desperate attempts to be respected and feared as something he's not, and learning to be secure in being a monkey.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: Chin-Kee, who is a perpetual source of embarrassment for Danny, and has caused him to switch schools out of embarrassment several times before. It is, of course, all an act to get Danny to accept his race.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: The Monkey King acquires numerous abilities through the mastery of various kung fu disciplines.
  • Take That!: Danny attends Oliphant High School, a reference to Pat Oliphant for a racist political cartoon he drew in April 2001.
  • Taught to Hate: When Jin moves to America and is introduced to his new American classmates, a white boy named Timmy says, "My momma says Chinese people eat dogs." Years later, when they are attending the same high school, he makes sure to loudly say anti-Asian slurs in the presence of Jin, Wei-Chen, and Suzy, all of whom are Asian.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: In the Monkey King's story, female monkeys look just like male monkeys except with pink bows on their heads. It's later subverted with the monkey in Jin and Wei-Chen's class - it has long eyelashes and big pink lips (due to being a former test subject for a makeup company), but is male.
  • That Man Is Dead: When the Monkey King first announces his new title, he claims that the "Monkey King" no longer exists.
  • Toilet Humor: Urination is a plot point in all three stories at one point or another.
  • Tomato Surprise: With some shades of Tomato in the Mirror and Two Aliases, One Character.
  • Translation Convention: In the sections with Jin, when someone is speaking in Mandarin it's translated in English but marked with angled brackets.
  • Trickster Mentor: The Monkey King, who disguises himself as the overly obnoxious Chin-Kee to teach Danny/Jin a lesson about not abandoning his heritage.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Danny and Jin. Chin-Kee and the Monkey King.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Jin gets to date Amelia in the first place because Wei-Chen managed to convince her he was a good person, and because he willingly lied to Jin's mother to let Jin sneak out. Jin repays him by kissing his girl, then lashing out at Wei-Chen to avoid admitting his own unwillingness to stand up for himself to Greg. It destroys Wei-Chen's faith in humanity, and very nearly has terrible cosmic consequences.
  • Unnamed Parent: Jin and Danny's parents are never actually named during the story. This is because Jin and Danny are the same person, and naming his parents would give away the twist.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: One of the Monkey King's powers, attained from his mastery of kung-fu.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: While the absence of Greg and the others can be rationalized as Jin just growing up and leaving them; the more plot relevant Suzy just kind of departs from the story after the fight with Jin and never comes back.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The Monkey King is barred from a celestial party because he is a monkey (and for not wearing shoes).
  • Yawn and Reach: Jin tries this on Amelia at the movies.