In a lot of juvenile fiction, the moral is the same: “Be yourself.” Don’t compromise your beliefs or values for some artificial notion of success or popularity. The moral sounds good on paper and on film, and it’s good advice in general.
Of course, these fictions are often constructed in such a way that there really isn’t any other sensible choice. Being yourself may not be the easiest path, but it’s clearly the most rewarding one. You may not score the flashy outcomes, but the really important ones –true friends, romance, self-respect, the Mathalon trophy – are within your grasp.
Reality is much messier, obviously. No matter what your age, “be yourself” isn’t always intuitively useful advice. And there are always instances where others are all too happy to make assumptions on precisely who the real you is based on the flimsiest (or laziest) of pretexts.
There’s an undeniable thread of “Be yourself” running through Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese (First Second), but he frames it with so much wit and frankness that it never seems simplistic or cliché. It’s a bracingly funny look at racism (both blatant and internalized).
He breaks the book into three stories. In the first, the Monkey King thinks his stature and accomplishments rank him as an equal among the supernatural pantheon. (The pantheon disagrees.) In the second, Jin struggles with the burdens and assumptions of being “the Chinese kid” in an overwhelmingly white school. The third is a grotesque sitcom where bland young Danny’s every step towards popularity is undone by the annual visit of Cousin Chin-Kee, a horrific amalgamation of Chinese stereotypes.
Each of the concurrent stories has its own style, from revisionist fable to coming-of-age slice of life to nightmare with canned laughter. The styles support each other, as do the stories. They accumulate into a larger view of the ways cultural and individual influences intersect and conflict. Yang’s artistic style is appealingly simple and clear throughout.
The formal intersection of the three stories isn’t entirely effective, and the ending seems a bit rushed. It’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise, because Yang isn’t telling the kind of story that can really be concluded neatly, if at all.
There’s tough, challenging material here, and Yang doesn’t diminish it by delivering it with a general lightness of tone. If anything, the comic warmth of the book makes the sharper moments more effective. Should you really have laughed at that? Would you in a different context?