Disney+’s adaptation of the graphic novel “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang is perfect for the whole family. Like the best of stories, it highlights the universal through the specific, and in this 8 episode series, Jin Wang struggles with his identity and where he fits in the world with the specific background of being the child of Chinese immigrants. Oh, and there’s an all-star cast with amazing martial art fight sequences intermixed with classic, Chinese myths of the Monkey King. What’s not to like?
Modernizing an Asian American classic
In the original seminal work that came out in 2006, the story follows three seemingly different storylines that eventually converge: one of the Monkey King, another of Jin Wang, and then a third following Danny, an all-American kid who has a Chinese cousin Chin-Kee come visit him. With such a complex structure, I wondered how they would translate the novel into a visual medium. I need not have been concerned. The Disney+ series updates the story, making two of the worlds come together by the first episode and enfolding the Danny storyline into a fictional sitcom.
As for the seventeen year gap between publish date and this series, Yang explained to me at the CAAMfest San Francisco premier that showrunner Kelvin Yu and his team did an excellent job incorporating the changes our Asian American community has gone through since the book was released. “In Episode 2, the students in this high school gather in protest for the way in which an Asian American kid was bullied,” Yang said. “That would have never happened when we were kids. But you can imagine it happening now. The conversations and perceptions of Asian Americans have diversified.”
Indeed, the tropes of that protest are turned on its head and I appreciated the multiple nuances to that scene, depicting the many kinds of reactions and motivations of various Asian American students. Nothing is trite or heavy handed and as a result, the story feels real and rooted despite the fantastical elements that are effortlessly integrated.
“We’re not water ski people”
When I first read the graphic novel in 2017, I found that it was hard for me to connect to Jin’s character. I was disappointed I didn’t find the story as emotionally resonant as I’d expected. In retrospect, I suspect part of the reason was that I no longer identified with the teenaged character. Jin’s parents weren’t featured much in the book, so when I watched the first two episodes, I was surprised by the emotional depth and humanity of Simon Wang (Chin Han) and Christina (Yeo Yann Yann) as well as the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) in whom I saw myself even though they represented my parents’ generation.
For instance, Simon’s story of stagnating at work parallels Jin’s experience at school. They both need to speak up for themselves (a recurring theme that Christine keeps repeating to them both). There is a scene where Simon tries to make small talk and join a conversation with his boss but is ultimately unable to penetrate that confusing social morass. That moment hit me in the gut. All I could think of was the frustration and helplessness my parents must have felt in their own careers.
As for Christine, her character is so refreshing. Funny, sweet, and kind, Jin’s mother is nothing like a stereotypical Tiger Mom. “Jin and Christine’s relationship is really sweet and touching. Both of them are trying very hard to understand each other,” Yeo told me. “That’s something I do see in our life and is seldom portrayed this way. I really wanted to bring in an authentic Asian mom — an authentic mother in the household. That’s something I’m more than happy to portray.”
For me, the mother and son relationship was one of the main joys of the show. Christine obviously loves her son and tries to encourage him to speak up. And yet, she is not ignorant of the realities of being Chinese in a white world. When Jin asks if they would ever go waterskiing in a bid to fit in with some of his rich, white classmates, she responds, “We’re not water ski people.”
The truth of that statement is heartbreaking and is a central tenet to the series. Christine knows who they are and who they are not — not only in their experience as Chinese American but also in how others perceive them.
We are not alone
As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I would have loved a show like “American Born Chinese” that showcased people who reflected my worldview and lived experience. Like countless other Asian Americans, I was constantly navigating that amorphous line of assimilation and alienation, torn between wanting to fit in and being comfortable in my own skin.
Daniel Wu, who played the Monkey King, summed up the dilemma succinctly. “What do I embrace from my culture? What do I reject? Sometimes, you just want to fit in with everybody.”
I was so excited to show my children this show, and though they were initially reluctant to watch (they never want to see anything I recommend), they really loved the story and the fight scenes. While it is always jarring to me when my kids don’t care about seeing Asian American characters on screen, it also comforts me. What a wonder that they can regularly see themselves reflected in shows on major streaming sites like Disney+ and Netflix when I had to watch the one Asian channel on TV in order to see people like me.
“There’s still Asian American kids growing up in Iowa and Ohio or whatever,” Wu told me. “The fact that this is on Disney+ streaming where everyone can see — they can feel seen and not like the only one.”
While that’s a win for Asian American kids, ultimately, I hope that non-Asian American kids can also be excited to watch a show like “American Born Chinese.” While our cultures might be slightly (or greatly) different, we are all ultimately trying to figure out who we are, both separate and in relation to our parents, peers, and culture. And if there is a fantastical world where people like us are the main character, all the better.
“American Born Chinese” is now streaming on Disney+.