So, I got a copy of American Born Chinese, and I more or less avoided reading it for a few months. I have personal apprehension approaching any identity-related (specifically Asian hyphen American boondogglery) anything, since most of it often strikes my snobbish tastes as amateurish. I mostly don't think it's been well-handled in media outside of books and prose...since, well, apparently people don't read.
That came off stupider than I want it to...let me try again. Generally speaking, projects such as this usually hew close to their creator's lives; they're so personal, in fact, that whatever thought process creates clearly seems to exclude ideas from other material that treads the same ground. Consequently, a lot of just seems like its the first time they've thought about it.
Preamble done, that was a foolish thing to assume on my part, and Gene Yang has clearly done most of the heavy lifting before setting pen to paper. He's got a straightforward, approachable style that communicates what he wants to well, which he does in three storylines. One is the tale of Jin Wang, new to neighborhood (the ABC of the title), and all that entails. One is a personal version of Sun Wu-Kong, the Monkey King, tale of finding enlightenment. Lastly is a sitcomy surburban tale of Danny, the straight man, and Chinkee, the embodiment of every Chinese stereotype put together (Excepts cats? Dude, we eat dogs.) The style Yang hides a pretty bit of formal play with the three threads of story presented that I quite liked. Maybe a little more obvious than in an adult book, or maybe from my own affection for magical realism, but I had no trouble with it, and I found it two-thirds elegant. But without really meaning to, I want to skip the obvious praise the book generally deserves (better done by others anyway) and jump into what complicates my reading of it.
Everything in the Monkey King portion is troublesome, and by the end the weight of the choices tumbles it under. The Monkey King, who wants to be accepted into the god's dinner party, seeks skills and powers to be accepted, and when he isn't, punishes those who reject him, even as he clearly rejects his own God-given nature by wearing shoes. Anyone else see how problematic conflating a personal quest for acceptance among peers, and authenticity and all that, with the symbolism of wearing shoes? This is trouble enough if we were just talking culture, and mixing civilzation and class, but mix in race (which here is unavoidable) and being a natural monkey, and you have a pretty confusing approach to take in. Unless you want to combine it with a bit about civilization itself, via animals.* Complicated as this approach already is, it's further hampered by being paired with only the most cursory depictions of everyone else. Mildly arrogant, (in the other threads, casually racist as opposed to rabidly so), the minor gods wear shoes, and are none worse for it--they don't seem to be that natural either. The Monkey King is a stand in for people like Jin, right? Chinese descent seems tied to monkeyness, unless it isn't.
The travails of the Monkey King, and his inability to accept his place in the world (as opposed to say, finding his place), sadly all represented by acceptance into civilized things, hits another snag when the Buddhist monk who he traditionally aids (as he grows in maturity) turns out to be a disciple of Christ who'se going to lead them to baby jesus. We're not just in a variant telling, which considering Heaven usually invites the Monkey King who then misbehaves, as opposed to the latter trying to crash the party, we're in a whole different story. Which is fighting every last element of the story Yang is appropiating.
The appeal of using the Monkey King is understandable, I don't know any other specifically Chinese myth that would have an ounce of recognition that the Monkey King has, but considering that the character is clearly meant to stand in for universal Christian principles, it's far too specific. This and changing details, it's lost clarity to boot. But I'm going to skip talking specifically about using the Monkey King to go to Bethlehem--even uncomplicated by viying images, it's mostly a digression of subject from the book proper that doesn't take.
But the formal play from earlier is when all three storylines combine into one. And while I like the way the other two do it, the Monkey King just can't make it. And it's not that its too fantastical to combine with the other two, more-or-less naturalist stories, but that combining the minority experience with acceptance via Christ, which I presume is personally true for Yang, is a hugely complicating mash. This is where the being a monkey and accepting the natural order (and rejecting all civilizing symbols) is unavoidable. I understand the notion that ethnicity (as race and not as culture) is inescapable, but this enlightement delivered as monkeyness?
Not everything is a symbolic, I suppose. The review I referred to above thought Wei-Chan's later appearance in hip-hop gear and driving a tricked-out spolierific car was about the embrace of materialism and wealth (and it may be, but now I'm mixing cutulral critique about immigrants with ABCs), but it's also a prominent Asian/Asian-American subculture by itself, as visible to those around it as the Christian contigent. And then, American Born Chinese becomes a personal tale, about how the author accepted himself as he always was.
But identity is only half what you make yourself to be, and half what other people see. Active take: It's what you make yourself, including how your reactions. It's a social construction, it's a relationship to others, your culture (of origins and otherwise), and you can't approach it without acknowedging the role other people play in it in a larger way. It involves the play between cutlures and expectations, as much as any personal desire to be outwardly anything. It's not just accepting the nature that you can't change personally as much as it might be accepting everyone else.
Big, fat, complex topics (and my own hang-ups) aren't going to be fully covered in any one book (or blog post), so this shouldn't take away from an impressive, strong book. Perhaps, from the creator's view, even a success. But hopefully, this is just the opening shot.
*Babe: Pig in the City is good for that.