American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, is a surreal graphic book about a Chinese American kid who is very embarrassed to be Chinese. It has been praised by almost everyone who has read it. So it’s not strange that fans, like me, were a little skeptical when they saw trailers for the Disney Plus show American Born Chinese.
Action scenes and a fight between the real world and heaven have been shown in footage from the show. This seems to be a play on the huge success of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (though to be fair, the show does use almost the entire cast of the Best Picture winner).
It seems unrelated to the story of Jin Wang, a high school student who has a lot to learn about himself and who is stuck and comforted by his racist discomfort. The graphic book American Born Chinese has some fantastical parts, but they’re… well, it’s hard to explain what they are. That’s for sure. They’re not a kung fu action fight for the fate of the world.
But after watching a few episodes of the TV show version of American Born Chinese before it started, I can say with certainty that there’s more to it than meets the eye. And what I’ve seen so far is enough to make me very excited.
The most “challenging” thing about the graphic book American Born Chinese is also what makes it so thought-provoking. It’s not just about how Jin Wang, a high school student, ruined his friendship with his best friend so he could fit in with the white kids.
Yang’s graphic novel tells two other stories at the same time: one is about the early life of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and the other is a fictionalized American sitcom about a white American teenager and his embarrassing cousin, Chin-Kee. It is a collection of the most harmful Western stereotypes of Chinese men.
Before the end of the book, none of these stories seem to have anything to do with each other. Even then, it’s not clear if the Monkey King’s story or the comedy is as “real” as Jin Wang’s. The book works because each of the stories has a theme of wanting to change one’s identity because of prejudice from the outside. It works no matter what was real.
But Yang’s experiments with the diegesis, like the different types of cartooning and layout on the page and the clear chapter breaks, don’t work the same way on TV for all ages. The “reality” of live-action TV can’t match the “hyper-reality” of animation.
At the same time, live-action makes a lot of heavy material much clearer and easier to understand. In the graphic book, Yang’s picture of Chin-Kee’s cousin is unsettling, as it should be. The buck-toothed, pidgin-speaking, queue-wearing stand-in for racism against Chinese Americans would be awful if it happened in real life.
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American Born Chinese’s first few episodes show that the creators have a great understanding of how to keep the spirit of a story while adapting it for a different medium and a current audience of young viewers. No, the show doesn’t keep the same “realness” ambiguity as the book. Jin does finally find out that his new friend Wei-Chen is the runaway son of the Monkey King, but it takes a few episodes for that shoe to drop for him.
But Cousin Chin-Kee is still in the show, which has been changed to use the language of sitcoms like Friends. Ke Huy Quan plays an actor who used to play a broad Asian butt-of-the-joke character on a ’90s show. His pratfalls have become a TikTok meme, which gives his role in The Youth new meaning.
One teen asks another, “Isn’t that kind of a problem?” as they laugh at another video of his catchphrase, which is said with an accent: “What could go wrong?” — just before they ask Jin, the Asian person standing next to them if it’s OK to laugh. Jin doesn’t say anything, not because he doesn’t want to, but because he wants everyone to think he’s a cool guy to hang out with.
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It’s a scene that could have easily happened in the book if it hadn’t been written in 2006 before social media and “problematic” became a common words. In 2023, these are important ways that teens in the United States talk about race and racism, and American Born Chinese is smart enough to know that.
American Born Chinese is smart, current, serious, and funny all at the same time. A lot of that comes from the great acting skills of young stars Ben Wang and Jim Liu, who play the leads Jin and Wei-Chen. And that might be all it takes for it to be just as good as the original. If people come to see Everything, Everywhere, All at Once but stay to watch a coming-of-age story that’s just as hard-hitting as American Born Chinese, the book, then, hey, that’s adaptation at its best.