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What is the American religious experience? When you think of the American religious experience you automatically think of Christianity and how closely intertwined it is with the American culture itself. It is so intertwined with the culture that the meaning of a “true American” includes being a good Christian. The definition of being an “American” also includes or prefers whites. Because the American religious experience is heavily dominated by Christianity and whites, it often times excludes or discriminates against other religions, cultures and ethnicities.
Does being of a different ethnicity or culture who may or may not believe in Christianity make you less of an American? And what effect does this idea of being American and its closeness to the religious experience in the United States cause in individuals who may not fit the model? These questions are addressed in Yang’s book, American Born Chinese.
The characters in Yang’s book face a lot of discrimination and racism throughout the stories simply because they do no fit the model that is presented to them by society.
Jin isn’t American enough in comparison to his classmates, teacher or love interest because he is of Chinese or Asian descent. The Monkey King faces discrimination when he tries to enter the party taking place in the heavens. He is just as capable and powerful as the other deities but because he is a monkey he is looked down upon and denied access as well as rejected by the deities. Danny is seen as an outcast in all of his previous schools after he is associated with his cousin, Chin-kee, who is a living, walking stereotype of the Chinese culture and people.
These three characters react to society’s behavior by rejecting part of their identity and accommodating or assimilating into their surroundings. Jin does this by perming his hair and avoiding other asian students, the monkey begins to wear shoes and learn new skills that will earn respect, and Danny affirms that he is nothing like his cousin and tries his absolute best not to associate himself with Chin-kee. Both Danny and Jin, who in the end turn out to be the same person, try their best to remove any evidence of their cultural backgrounds. The Monkey King rejects the idea of being a monkey who was created with purpose by an ultimate being. Through tough scenarios the characters are able to reflect and accept that no matter how much they may try, they will continue to hold those characteristics they despise. Those characteristics help define their persona whether they like it or not.
The stories of these three characters demonstrate some sort of metaphor of what the American religious experience is like. Danny and Jin, and obviously Chin-Kee, do not fit the American standards of a “regular” teenage boy. It is because of their difference in cultures and backgrounds that they are rejected by classmates. It is only when Jin becomes Danny, this character that seems to fit the standards presented by society, that he is finally starting to be accepted by his fellow classmates. Where as, when he was a child and demonstrated his Chinese background, he was bullied and rejected at school. The transformation from Jin to Danny is a metaphor for the the goal of changing one’s identity to fit in, a result of the American religious experience and its tendency to exclude other religions and cultures. The Monkey King demonstrates great determination to demonstrate to the best of his ability that he is very similar to the other deities. He is just as powerful as them and even surpassses their powers at some point but even that is not enough for the other deities to consider him an equal. To the other deities he continues to be a monkey and always will be a monkey. This story gives an example of another point made earlier about the American religious experience. This point is that there is discrimination even among Christians, the whites are still held at a higher stature than anyone else. Asians and other minorities may be Christian, and follow everything the religion asks of them but they are still not equal to the “Americans” or whites. These “Americans” are still better Christians than the rest.
What this book, American Born Chinese, reveals about the American religious experience is the discrimination that occurs among religious groups. The message it tries to convey is that it is completely fine if certain people or groups do not seem to fit these models set by society. What is not correct is to try and change one’s identity in order to fit in. It is better to be at peace with oneself and your beliefs rather than remove all individuality, alter your identity and constantly trying to keep a false image of yourself. There is obviously a dominant group in the American religious experience but this does not mean there is no space for other cultures and religions to exist. These groups will face and remain strong against societal pressures, as well as keep faith in themselves and that in which they believe.
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