Read: American Born Chinese

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.

6 Comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book, so I think I’ll have to hunt it down for this year’s reading. It’s great that you were able to appreciate the book from both the Singaporean and US perspective. Are there any books like this from Singapore? Also, since you have read some books on food and culture, have you read Jennifer 8 Lee’s Fortune Cookie Chronicles?

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    1. Unfortunately I am not too well versed on literature from my own country. It’s definitely something I have to go and correct soon, although it’s a bit difficult obtaining stuff over here now! I don’t think I’ve ever read any graphic novels from Singapore (although I did grow up reading Malaysian Lat’s cartoons like Kampung Boy). So to answer your question, I’m not quite sure if there are books from Singapore that are like American Born Chinese. But I’m curious to go find out.

      I haven’t read Fortune Cookie Chronicles yet, but it’s definitely on my TBR list. As is Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey. Was it a good read?

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      1. Fortune Cookie Chronicles was an excellent book — I enjoyed learning about how much of a cultural influence Chinese food has made on America, with research on everything from fortune cookies to chop suey to Chinese takeout and its impact on food delivery. The author posits that Chinese food may be just as, if not more, American than apple pie.
        BTW, I just finished American Born Chinese, and I really enjoyed it. I appreciated how all three tales tied together in the end, and the artwork was fantastic. Thanks for the recommendation.

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      2. I just got Fortune Cookie Chronicles. American Chinese food is definitely very different from the Chinese food that I grew up with, which is more Hokkien (kind of originating from the Fujian province), Teochew (originating from Guangdong province) and Hainanese. I remember being quite fascinated when, as a kid reading mostly American (and some British) books, I read about mushu pork, chop suey and fortune cookies. I always wanted to try a fortune cookie. And then when i finally did, I was quite disappointed!

        And I’m glad you enjoyed American Born Chinese!

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