Like Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap and illustrated by Mari Araki (of which you can see my review here), this YA graphic novel focuses around one teen’s life in the United States from the perspective of their culture. Tina, the protagonist in Tina’s Mouth, was of Indian descent and in American Born Chinese (you might’ve guessed already by now) the main character, Jin, was of Chinese lineage. Both are born and raised in the US, but their culture and people’s perception of them still factor heavily in their every day lives.
The book has three different sections and jumps back and forth between them. The first part is an inter-weaving parable about where various gods (most specifically the Monkey King) came from, what they went through, and why in the Chinese tradition. The second is from Jin’s pov as he recounts his parents’ opinions on things (and their emphasis on doing well in school, to the exclusion of a social life all the way through college) and his time in school and with friends. The third is a TV show called “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”. If you couldn’t tell by the title, it’s incredibly offensive and, I think, serves to highlight some of the ugly racism that pervades our culture.
A common thread that runs through all three stories is the desire to belong. How it can blind you, make you weaker, meaner, forget your roots and family. The Monkey King wants power and respect and works to get faster, smarter, more versatile and skilled. But in the end, he still can get trapped under a pile of rocks by a higher god. Jin wants little more than to fit in in school so he turns his back on things that are part of his heritage and wants only to look “normal” and be liked. Danny, the lead character in the offensive TV show, is constantly embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee’s “antics” when in reality, Chin-Kee is an overblown stereotype but who is also being true to himself and enjoying life to the fullest.
Along the way, each character learns something about being true to themselves, the power that they have over their own life, and the importance of family and friends. It’s a well-drawn, well-written coming-of-age story that I think should be on required reading lists.