The moment that I knew graphic novel American Born Chinese was something special, and real, was in its second chapter. One of the main characters, Jin Wang, is a young, Chinese American boy who moved from an Asian neighbourhood in San Francisco to a white one in the suburbs. Jin has a horrible time adjusting. Mobile users, please note this article contains a lot of images.
One of the kids expresses disgust at Jin’s dumpling lunch, and assumes that he eats dogs. The teacher butchers his name, and tells everyone he’s from China. He has no friends. And then another kid comes along — one who is even more outwardly Chinese in mannerisms and appearances than Jin. And Jin says something that really resonated with me:
“Something made me want to beat him up.”
This debasing, of minority to minority, has appeared in the works of many minority artists. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, opens with a scene of black college students fighting over coins in front of white benefactors. In The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, a Latina girl who can pass for white looks down upon her fellow, darker Latina girls who cannot. Even on ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, the Asian boy and black boy brawl in the lunchroom — two minorities fighting on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
American Born Chinese combines three stories of self-hate, moving towards self-discovery. The first is about Jin Wang. The second is about the Monkey King (based off the classical character from Journey To The West) who wants to be a God, and does everything in his power to make it a reality.
The third is the most uncomfortable — it’s about Chin-Kee (get it?) a walking, talking, hyperbolised Chinese stereotype. He’s unhygienic, mockingly accented, bucktoothed, and perverted towards girls. It’s a nightmare — it’s every playground insult come to life, and every latent fear that Asian men hope they don’t fulfil. “Asian American men who are older than me,” Yang says, “Will tell me that the Cousin Chin-Kee character was so painful that it was hard for them to finish the book.”
There are many moments in American Born Chinese where characters are made to feel embarrassed for what they are. The Monkey King, after being told by the Gods that he will never be more than a monkey, notices the smell of monkey fur when he goes back home — it was a smell he had never noticed before.
There’s another moment in the novel when Jin and his friends are having a good time, when the two class bullies come along using racial epithets. Rather than getting angry, they turn red with embarrassment, and sit in silence. Their good time has been ruined, and they have been made crushingly aware of their social status.
Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” may have captured this humiliation best — of the way that aggressive, nasty comments can cut to the heart of a person’s insecurities:
The graphic novel also explores interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic. Jin falls in love with a white girl in his class named Amelia, and to impress her, he starts curling his hair, to match the hairstyle of the other boys in their class. It’s a subtle but notable subsuming of his Asian identity, and he is mocked for it — more so than if he simply kept his hair the way it was before.
The bullies affect Jin and wound his pride, but it’s one of his good friends, Greg, who cuts the deepest, and challenges his Asian manhood. In a racially coded, awkward conversation, Greg tells Jin that he doesn’t want him to date Amelia — that since they are all getting older, Amelia needs to be aware of the type of people she hangs out with.
It hurts horribly, especially because it was Greg who defended Jin from his racist bullies. But even Greg’s tolerance has a limit — racism comes in multitudes, and isn’t limited to epithets and slanting eyes. It’s the moment that sparks Jin’s total denial of self and Asian-ness. He no longer wants to act white; he wants to be white. And it’s a desperate wish that he pays for dearly.
It’s one of the most guilty thoughts that an ethnic minority can have — a wish to fit in and look different — to not bear the baggage that comes with one’s physical identity. And it’s not something that’s talked about much. But it ought to be something that’s talked about more, if only because talking about it helps us come to term with it. And all communication, from writing, to drawing, to film, to speech, is the first step.
Self-hatred is a complicated emotion that I’ve experienced first hand. For a couple of years, my sister and I were two of the only Chinese kids in our public school, amongst a sea of white faces. But there was another kid in my school who was more ‘Asian’ than I was. His mum made his clothes for him. He didn’t speak English at home. And our families were friends — our mums told us that we needed to stick together. So we did so — but only to an extent.
One day, he brought in some of his mum’s home-made sushi. The kids around him all turned up their noses, making a big show of how disgusting it was. I really liked sushi, but to my shame, I joined in making fun of him. It was a misguided need to belong, but it was also a self-hatred of my Asian identity — it felt good to kick someone who was more Asian than I was, and to reject a label that I was always conscious of.
There was also a feeling of theatre to the whole thing — that I was performing at being Chinese in front of a white audience. I partook in Asian things that might amuse Fthem, like teaching them how to swear in Chinese, or pretending that I knew kung fu (it didn’t take much more than a few kicks to convince them of this). And, I would disavow the ‘other’ Asian things, like sushi, that would gross them out or alienate them from me.
When I spoke to Gene Luen Yang, the author and artist of American Born Chinese, over email last week, he reflected about this self-hatred. Much of the novel was inspired by his own childhood experiences, and he identified with the performance aspect of wanting to amuse a white audience:
“I’ve been on both sides of bullying,” Yang says. “As a kid, sometimes I was bullied, and other times, I was the bully. When I did the bullying, I was often driven by that mentality that you speak of. I don’t even know if I was completely conscious of it. I felt different, so it felt good to pick on someone who seemed even more different than me.”
“Writing and drawing that book was a huge part of my process [of reconciling my identity],” Yang says. “I can’t say I’m completely reconciled in terms of my identity, but working on American Born Chinese certainly helped.”
We’re told from an early age, by everyone in our support system, that we’re supposed to feel “AZNPRIDE!” in our identity — proud of the culture we came from. Usually, we are. But sometimes, we resent it, and we’d rather fit in than be different. It’s a struggle, from childhood through adulthood, to overcome that — to stand up a bit straighter, and raise our voices a bit louder. We should. And we do. But it takes time, and it’s just so tiring.