“American Born Chinese” or How One Reconciles with the Hyphen

755081My mother once told me an old Chinese parable.

Gene Luen Yang is not our mother and his story is not old nor strictly Chinese but what he offers in his award-winning graphic novel is, at its heart, a parable about the hyphen. What do I mean by hyphen? The much maligned one that Toni Morrison refers to in her famous quote, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” The hyphen as a metaphor for then tension, rejection, and discrimination African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, EthnicOther-American communities face within their own country has been frequently examined in a myriad of academic and sociological ways. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the hyphen can’t also be a locus for the unification of the multiple identities that make up one person. And if so, if that hyphen can’t itself be a source of empowerment and reconciliation.

This might be the first time I’ve used the word “locus” since grad school. Bad blogger, bad! Moving on…

These were the questions that popped into my mind as I read American Born Chinese. The novel begins with three distinct storylines. The first is that of the Monkey King, a deity who is nonetheless rejected from the heavens where the immortal gods live. The second and core story is that of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student who wishes nothing else than to not be the token Chinese-American student. The last is the tale of Danny and his absolutely, over-the-top, cringe-worthy cousin Chin-Kee, who looks and acts like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but with some updated pop culture references under his wing.

As each of the three stories unfold, the smart reader will realize that they’re interconnected. More over, each one seems to speak to a fragment of Jin, who is experiencing the micro-aggressions that can turn insecurities about your place in the world into horrifying ordeals. Through his story we see the frustration of being automatically grouped into a category that might not fit, the different cultural upbringings that can wreak havoc on a first date, and the fact that those around you might never see you as being worthy of their care or respect. Chin-Kee, with his buck teeth, perfect grades, and retro views on women, is the embodiment of what Jin fears: being seen as a stereotype. As for the Monkey King, his spiritual journey becomes a vital component to Jin’s own personal development. (No spoilers for now.)

All three of these characters meet at an end that is a somewhat bizarre, but hopeful in terms of answering Jin’s existential questions. From a fragmented stories, a novel becomes  whole. Those connecting tissues, that hyphen that binds all three characters together, ends up being their saving grace and what ends up saving them from social isolation. Even better, it’s what ends up saving them from being isolated from themselves.