American Born Chinese Summary

Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

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American Born Chinese Summary

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Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese was released in 2006. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category and was awarded the Publishers Weekly Best Comic of the Year prize as well as earning a spot on the Booklist Top Ten Graphic Novels for Youth list.

American Born Chinese is the story of Jin Wang, a young boy of Chinese American descent struggling with his ethnic identity. The novel opens in ancient China and is a variation of the Monkey King story. At the start, the gods and goddesses are having a party. It is a loud, lavish affair and enticing aromas waft down to the people of the lands over which the Monkey King is the leader. He becomes angry over not having been invited to the party and decides that he will show up. He is called a monkey at the door and is refused entry. Furious, the king breaks valuable items and manhandles some of the gods. His anger becomes humiliation and he leaves for home.

The narrative then switches to the present day (the 1980s), and introduces third-grade student Jin Wang. Jin lives in the Chinatown area of San Francisco. He frequents the local herbalist’s store with his mother. One day, his mother is taking a long time at the shop so Jin becomes engaged in conversation with the herbalist’s wife as she works on her abacus. She gives Jin a piece of advice, telling him that he can be whatever he chooses to be in life, however, he might end up losing his soul. Jin thinks she is slightly crazy but at the same time, her words stay in his head as he proceeds through life.

A few years later, Jin and his family have left Chinatown and resettled in the Bay area. They are among the only Chinese Americans living there. A very shy, young Asian girl does not interact with others, including Jin who has become very lonely. Eventually, a boy named Wei-Chen Chang arrives at Jin’s school. It takes them a while to learn to get along with one another but in time, a friendship develops. The story jumps forward to the 1990s, and the character Danny is introduced. Danny, with blond hair and blue eyes, is the last person one would expect to have a cousin Chin-Kee who seems to embody the Chinese stereotype. Danny fears that his cousin’s arrival for a visit will cause him much embarrassment; his fear is realized.

The story then returns to the Monkey King tale. The king is locked in his royal chamber, practicing to become a kung fu master and calling himself “The Great Sage.” He vows to punish the gods for the insults he feels they thrust upon him at the party. He finds himself challenged by Lord-Above, who imprisons “The Great Sage” under a mountain for five thousand years. Eventually, having learned about power and humility, the Monkey King is freed to lead the righteous master of the realm, Hsuan-Tsang, to the desert.

The story flashes forward once again to Jin Wang, who is dealing with his first middle school crush on a girl named Amelia. Wei-Chen helps Jin arrange a date to go to an amusement park with Amelia. They are hitting it off, but the next day she is asked out by Timmy, one of the popular boys in school, and she drops Jin. Timmy refers to Jin as a “dog eater.” When Jin seeks Wei-Chen to talk about what happened, he finds Wei-Chen’s girlfriend, Suzy; a talk with her ends up with the two kissing each other. When Wei-Chen enters the room as this is transpiring, Jin realizes he has just done to his friend what was done to him.

Jin goes to bed that night and has a dream. In it, the wife of the herbalist visits him and tells him that he has given up his soul and will have his wish granted. Upon awakening the next morning, Jin finds that he has been changed into a boy with blond hair and blue eyes whose name is Danny. Danny has a fight with Chin-Kee in the parking lot at the school. Danny tells Chin-Kee that he is tired of him coming every year and embarrassing him. During the fight, Chin-Kee turns into the Monkey King and tells Danny/Jin that he cannot hide his true self—the hair and eyes are an illusion. He explains that Wie-Chen was the Monkey King’s son whose job it was to become human and remain uncorrupted for forty years. He failed when he hated Jin for kissing Suzy, leading the Monkey King to haunt Jin in the form of Chin-kee. Jin knows that he needs to make peace with Wei-Chen and with himself.