Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Born Chinese

I had borrowed this amazing book from the library before, and for some reason I hadn't read it. I can't believe I had this thing in my possession and failed to recognize what I had. I made up for it this time by reading it in one sitting and feeling thoroughly smart for doing so.

This book contains three separate storylines that alternate throughout the book and are obviously related allegorically at least. One is a Chinese fable of the Monkey King, One is a 'real life' story of a Chinese-American teen, and one is a 'Perfect Strangers' style sitcom about a popular white jock who is plagued by his grotesquely negative stereotyped Chinese cousin Chin-Kee's yearly visits that force him to change schools regularly. Each of these pieces enhances the effectiveness of the other, showing a fable, with it's wisdom and significance, laid against the sort of 'worst of our culture' TV show, and how each plays a part in shaping the main character of the central story.

The thing about this book, is how universal and relevant it is. Trouble with Self-image & cultural identity, prejudice and stereotyping are things that plague us as people. This book drives the point home by not focusing on general terms here, but making it very specific, very individual, and very real. The behaviors described in this book, the ridiculous and often subtle and insidious racism and intolerance toward anyone who is different from the norm in any given population (people of Asian descent in this case), are real. I would imagine that anyone reading this book can find a time in their lives when they were witness to nearly identical situations.

I am not at all trying to remove the significance of this as an Asian American experience. I think it is a very important book in that regard. I think the universal truths in it, however, make it a classic on a level well above the mainstream.

The art is perfect for the story. There is humor, as well as a great deal of cringe-worthy reality. Our hero is just as unsure and human and self-destructive as any of us are. It all resolves beautifully in the end, bringing all three pieces together to make the book a sort of extension of a fable.

I think the other thing this shows really has something to do with Myth and Cultural heritage versus the reality of a television society where advertising rules, and advertising wants us to be insecure. Advertising wants us to want to be like someone else. Advertisers assure us that our lives will be better when we buy their product like everyone else does, so that we can become just like everyone else. I re-watched The Power of Myth recently. Reading this just made me appreciate Joseph Campbell's work and world view even more. Myths and stories are important for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

This is definitely a book I will be purchasing as soon as I have some extra cash to do so.


Eden said...

I'm a believer that First Second needs to offer yearly subscriptions. Even when the books didn't necessarily do much for me (like The Three Shadows), they're still good and worth reading. I have not read a bad book published by First Second.

American-Born Chinese deserved all the attention it received. It's definitely wonderful.

Here's Yang at the 2007 National Book Festival (not a direct link -- click "webcast"). He's also a very funny speaker.

Talkin Bout Comics said...

oh cool!, thanks!

middleofmayhem said...

Saw this blog post and then I saw this:


Thought you might enjoy it.

Talkin Bout Comics said...

Thanks for the link!