I am Chinese. My great-grandparents were born in China and migrated to Singapore all those years ago. Singapore’s population is about 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, 4% Indian and the rest are officially termed ‘Others’. I think because of that, I wasn’t fully aware of what being ‘Chinese’ meant, until I moved to the United Kingdom to do a Master’s degree – partly because I was my degree was in Globalisation, Ethnicity and Culture, so a lot of the classes had to do with diaspora, identity, the self (I wrote several papers trying to analyse the Singaporean identity even). As I grew more aware of being ‘Chinese’, being ‘Asian’, I found it curious that I felt that I had more in tune with my European classmates (British, German and Italian – I was the only non-European in my class) than my Asian flatmates (I lived in university-assigned graduate housing, with 2 Japanese and 1 Thai). Growing up in Singapore, I spoke, read and wrote in English both at home and at school (except for the mandatory Chinese classes and when speaking to my grandparents whom we only saw on weekends). I absorbed ‘western’ music, TV shows, films and books, and only on occasion did I watch a Hong Kong/Taiwanese/Chinese film or TV series (I don’t think I read a Chinese language book willingly until Jimmy Liao’s 向左走·向右走 [Turn Left, Turn Right], a very sweet illustrated love story made into a movie starring Gigi Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro).
So I think I led a bit of a conflicted life, as I’m sure did many other Singaporeans. And this was made more evident to me when I entered a rather ‘Chinese’ junior college (that’s like Grade 11 and 12 for the US) and was seen as someone who ‘jiak kantang’ (a Singlish term that literally means ‘eat potato’, as opposed to eating rice, that is, being more westernised). I’m glad I went to this school though, it definitely made me more appreciative of this Chinese person I am, and, thanks to an awesome Chinese teacher, did pretty well at this ‘mother tongue’ of mine (and learnt to like Chinese music a lot more).
This is a rather convoluted way of saying that, this graphic novel made me think about my own experience growing up as a Chinese Singaporean, and what it must be like to grow up Chinese in this country that I now reside in.
Anyway, American Born Chinese has three storylines. The first is that of the Monkey God. I was delighted by the use of this tale. It was one I grew up with (one of the rare Chinese TV series I watched). I remember following a China-made TV series called Journey To The West (西游记), which was kinda cheesy but quite fun.
The second story line is of young Jin Wang who’s trying to fit in at his school and his white classmates. The last tale is that of Danny, the all-American teenager whose cousin Chin-Kee (a purposefully buck-toothed, stereotyped Chinese – I can’t quite help but admire Yang’s use of this character) comes to visit. The three tales cleverly converge towards the end, for an interesting, quite satisfying finish. American Born Chinese is about identity and friendship and learning to accept yourself for who you are, whatever your ethnicity.