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I read American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, for my YA fiction course. This book tells 3 different stories that connect and interrelate. One is about the Monkey King, one about an ABC schoolboy Jin Wang, and one about quintessential American teenager Danny and his visit from embarrassing cousin Chin-Kee.
I’m surprised by how much Yang made me care about the Monkey King, because my usual association with Journey to the West is a ridiculously campy costume drama on Chinese TV. I seriously didn’t expect to feel sorrow for the Monkey King, because in the TV show, he’s at the part of his arc where he’s full of himself and his magical powers. Basically he goes around causing trouble and being bailed out by his traveling companions, with silly costumes and low-budget special effects. So I went into this book expecting the Monkey King to be ridiculous.
Instead, Yang shows the Monkey King trying to fit in at the heavenly banquet but being turned away because he has no shoes. The Monkey King is unable to fit in with his monkeys, either, and we see them trying (and failing) to wear shoes. We also see one of them trying to offer their king a yummy banana, completely unaware of the Monkey King’s angst or his new powers.
Yang also uses the “broccoli hair” to show Jin Wang trying to fit in, just like the monkeys in their slippers. His classmate has everything Jin doesn’t have, but he wants to have, like pink skin and blonde hair (his accent-free English is also implied by contrast with Wei’s awkward phrases, I think). I also noticed that Jin decided to emulate the most likable classmate, the one who didn’t pick on him, even though they weren’t really friends.
Finally, in the storyline with “Danny,” I thought Yang was visually referencing sitcoms like Saved By The Bell. I think Yang was referring to Jin’s TV watching in this storyline, because it definitely made sense of Jin’s character. We already saw him watching Transformers, and a lot of times, language learners use TV and movies in the target language to help improve their listening and understanding skills (like me watching Journey To The West).
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