Gene Luen Yang. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006, 2021.
There are some books that are brilliant for their ideas. Then there are some books that are brilliant for the experiences they bring and share with the reader. Then there are some books that are brilliant with both. This is one of them.
The idea that our feeling of difference is what makes us all the same is a tremendously consoling idea. (Andrew Solomon shares something similar in his book, Far from the Tree). But to illustrate and articulate that idea in a graphic novel through the themes of Asian American identity and heritage is just fantastic.
Perhaps I think so because I am myself of Asian descent and I, too, have been personally distraught at who I am, what I see in the mirror, and how I actually “fit in” with my surrounding human environment. For years, I have even held a disdain for my ethnicity, a view that I am ashamed of to this day. Hatred for one’s body is a unique kind of hell, a division of personhood that can never be reconciled as the forces of rejection come from both within and without.
Perhaps it is because I was influenced in my formative years by Christianity, and the salve and salvation of this identity crisis comes through “TZE-YO-TZUH,” the one who created and formed the Monkey King’s inmost being. As with most hero’s (heroes’?) journeys, deliverance is empowered through a higher force, some transcendent entity or spirituality. Put in more post-Enlightenment terms, something outside the system.
Perhaps it’s just that Yang’s graphic imagination is just brilliant and captivating. The weaving together of characters to illustrate the ontological turmoil of being is just amazing.
Regardless, coming to accept who you are is the journey of a life, and a lifetime. I love this book for what it says, and how it personally spoke to me, and I commend this read to you to aid you in your quest.
I believe that all the stories we tell—from the earliest fireside pantomimes performed by our ancestors to the most recent streaming service releases—collectively make up a millennia-long conversation about what it means to be human.
What I’ve found is that the outsider’s experience is nearly universal. Almost all of us have a story about not fitting in. It’s so common that, ironically, it can be a way for us to understand and connect with one another. The outsider’s experience can be our common ground.
Being on the outside can feel like pure agony, especially when we’re young. It can strike at the very core of who we are. But if we’re willing to work through our experiences and make sense of them, we’ll find that we’re not alone in our pain. Quite the opposite, actually.