Navigating Identity: The Central Characters in 'American Born Chinese'

Categories: American Born Chinese

In Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel 'American Born Chinese,' we are taken on a deeply human journey through an art form often dismissed as trivial. Yang's brilliant intertwining of stories confronts themes of identity, cultural heritage, acceptance, and transformation. At the heart of this poignant and visually striking narrative are three central characters: Jin Wang, the Monkey King, and Chin-Kee. Each of these figures allows Yang to explore the multifaceted nature of Chinese-American identity in the context of contemporary society.

Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, is the character who most clearly stands as a proxy for the 'American Born Chinese' experience. In the story, he moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to a predominantly white suburb, where he quickly finds himself a target of casual and overt racism. Yang portrays Jin's daily life with a sensitive yet unflinching realism, showcasing the alienation he feels not just from his white classmates but also within his own skin. We observe his resistance to his parents’ cultural norms and his longing to fit into mainstream American society, often at the cost of his own roots.

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Jin's character development throughout the novel is poignant, and his internal conflict becomes the emotional pulse of the narrative. The reader sympathizes with his struggles to reconcile his Chinese heritage with his American reality, and it is through Jin that Yang delivers some of his most powerful messages about the cost of assimilation and the pain of isolation.

Then, there is the legendary Monkey King, a character adapted from the classic Chinese tale 'Journey to the West.

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' The Monkey King is a proud and powerful deity, who, despite his immense power, faces discrimination from other gods because he is a monkey. This rejection leads to a battle between the Monkey King and the gods, which results in his imprisonment under a mountain of rocks. The Monkey King’s story is not just a mere fantastical detour. Instead, it operates as a metaphor for the alienation and dehumanization that many Asian Americans feel in a society that often treats them as perpetual foreigners. His eventual transformation and enlightenment, achieved through humility and acceptance of his monkey identity, mirrors the broader theme of the novel — that true self-acceptance comes with embracing, rather than rejecting, one’s roots.

And finally, there is Chin-Kee, the most controversial character in 'American Born Chinese.' Chin-Kee represents the embodiment of all the negative Chinese stereotypes prevalent in American culture. He is loud, crude, and seems oblivious to the discomfort he inflicts on those around him, particularly his cousin Danny. While some readers might find Chin-Kee unsettling or offensive, Yang employs this character as a strategic tool to bring the harmful stereotypes that Asian Americans face into sharp focus. As the story unfolds, Chin-Kee's true identity is revealed in a way that recontextualizes his character and turns him from a caricature into a powerful narrative device. Through Chin-Kee, Yang makes an emphatic statement about the degrading nature of stereotypes and the internal and external damage they can cause.

One of the most innovative aspects of 'American Born Chinese' is how Yang masterfully weaves these three seemingly disparate storylines into a coherent and impactful narrative. The characters, each struggling with their own form of identity crisis, eventually converge in a manner that is surprising yet deeply satisfying. Yang uses these characters to present a nuanced, empathetic, and sometimes painfully honest portrayal of the Chinese-American experience.

In conclusion, Gene Luen Yang's 'American Born Chinese' is more than a graphic novel; it is an exploration of the complex, sometimes contradictory aspects of identity and heritage. Through the journeys of Jin Wang, the Monkey King, and Chin-Kee, Yang encourages readers to confront uncomfortable truths about racism and self-acceptance, and he challenges us to consider the many forms that the struggle for identity can take. 'American Born Chinese' is not just a story about what it means to be Chinese in America; it is a broader reflection on the human need for acceptance, both from others and within oneself.

Updated: Aug 21, 2023
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Navigating Identity: The Central Characters in 'American Born Chinese'. (2023, Aug 21). Retrieved from

Navigating Identity: The Central Characters in 'American Born Chinese' essay
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