73 pages 2 hours read

Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

Fiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Middle Grade | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


American Born Chinese is a graphic novel published in 2006 by the American author and illustrator Gene Luen Yang. Through three interweaving stories that span from the 16th century to the present, the novel explores issues of Chinese American identity, anti-Asian racism, and assimilation. American Born Chinese is the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. The novel also won both the Printz Award from the American Library Association and the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album.

Note: The book covered in this study guide contains racist and offensive language. The author utilizes this language to educate readers on the harm inflicted by racist stereotypes. Because this offensive language is so central to the book and its themes, some of that language is reprinted in this guide.

Plot Summary

Three storylines move the plot of American Born Chinese forward, and the novel is divided into nine separate sections. The three storylines alternate, allowing each one to develop before they all intersect towards the end of the novel when the characters reach a revelatory climax together.

At the start of the novel, the first storyline begins when a mythical Monkey King attempts to enter a dinner party attended by the deities of Chinese folklore. He is denied entry because he is a monkey, and the Monkey King responds in anger and shame, returning home to his jungle to ponder the qualities of being a monkey that make a him inferior to others. He studies kung-fu in order to become more powerful, and he learns how to transform himself into a giant to intimidate others into giving him respect. Thanks to his aggressive shows of strength, the Monkey King draws the attention of the emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of the universe and the Monkey King himself. Tze-Yo-Tzuh tries to persuade the Monkey King to accept himself for who he is, but the Monkey King refuses to heed this wisdom. Tze-Yo-Tzuh buries him under a rock for 500 years, and only when the Monkey King acknowledges his true self to a humble monk named Wong Lai-Tsao is he able to free himself from the rock prison.

Meanwhile, a young boy named Jin Wang tells his story. His parents immigrated to San Francisco, California, arriving to the same airport within a week of each other. Later, they met as graduate students, married, moved to Chinatown in San Francisco, and raised Jin in a small apartment. When Jin and his parents move away from San Francisco to the suburbs, he finds himself in a third-grade classroom full of White students where even his teacher makes offensive assumptions about Jin’s appearance and culture. He makes friends with a new student from Taiwan named Wei-Chen and a girl of Japanese descent named Suzy Nakamura. The three friends are the only Asians in their class, and together they endure racist comments from their classmates while trying to navigate the complex experience of American middle school. Jin develops a crush on a White classmate named Amelia while he struggles with his identity as an American boy of Chinese parentage. In frustration and confusion, Jin lashes out at his best friend Wei-Chen after another White classmate humiliates him, destroying his friendship with Wei-Chen.

The third storyline involves a handsome White boy named Danny who is tormented by his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee, who embodies many negative Asian stereotypes, visits Danny and insists on attending classes with him at the local high school where Danny is a student. Chin-Kee shows off in class, demonstrating that he knows more about American subjects than the American students, and he behaves in other attention-seeking ways that humiliate Danny. The two argue, and their fight becomes physical. When Danny punches Chin-Kee in the face, Chin-Kee’s head falls off, revealing that Chin-Kee is the Monkey King in human form. Danny transforms as well, and it is revealed that he is, in reality, Jin Wang’s idealized White self.

At this point, the Monkey King reveals to Jin that his son is Wei-Chen, Jin’s estranged friend. He tells Jin that Wei-Chen, who is a monkey prince, has spoken highly of Jin, but Wei-Chen is now disillusioned by the petty impulses of humans. The Monkey King leaves Jin with an address to a Chinese café, and Jin waits there every day after school for a month, hoping to find Wei-Chen. When Wei-Chen finally appears, the boys drink boba tea and Jin apologizes to Wei-Chen. Their friendship resumes as Wei-Chen offers to take Jin to another Chinese café he knows, where the boba tea is the best he ever tasted.