The Monkey’s Journey
American Born Chinese written by Gene Luen Yang and published in 2006 is a huge story. In fact it is such a huge story that the presentation of the story is misleading. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Actually it is three stories contained in a single volume and these three stories are tied together in a way to help tell a much larger story.
First, let’s get some things out of the way. The book not only won the Printz award in 2007, it was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, took an Eisner award in 2007, and pretty much a page of other awards. This is a comic book that won a bunch. Its Printz award was actually the first one ever awarded to a graphic novel. Ya, this one has a pedigree. (I feel like we should be drinking tea with our pinkie in the air right now).
The underlying story is Mr. Yangs story (with embellishments) as a Chinese American and the world he grew up in. If that were all we were dealing with we would have a fairly boring story of a kid in America. We should know all this stuff by now, I mean seriously, we were all teenagers and such at one point in our lives (some of us never went much beyond that, even as adults). But it goes a bit deeper than that. See, there is an old story in China based on the idea of the Monkey King. This story has been a huge part of the culture and has been interpreted and reinterpreted much like many of the folk stories and fairy tales Westerners have grown up with.
Journey to the West (the Monkey King is based within these stories) has roots in Buddhist tradition. But at the same time it can also be traced into Hindu traditions as well. What Mr. Yang did though, he took it a step further and more personal with himself and brought it in line with his Christian traditions. But aside from these origins, religion does not play a big role within the story aside from the background of the characters themselves. You can know all that I have just told you and it will have no bearing what so ever on your enjoyment of the story.
With that said, we step into the story. It all starts with the story of the Monkey King. This is the ground work for the study of a child who is trapped between two different worlds. Jin Wang is the Chinese boy, first generation American who is trapped between the world of his parents and the world of the Americans he goes to school with. And much like the Monkey King he is in a constant battle to conform and change himself to be accepted by those who are nothing like him. These first two stories run almost parallel as we see the struggles of both Jin Wang and the Monkey King. But there is a third story.
In the third story, also running at the same time as the first two we encounter a Caucasian boy by the name of Danny. In Danny’s story he is visited by a cousin from China by the name of Chin-Kee. What we learn of this cousin and see as readers is the worst kind of Asian stereotype we could read about. And it feels like this portion of the story is completely out of place.
But this is where we find the beauty of how this story unfolds. In reality there is only a single story running through the whole thing, the story of the Monkey King. But we as the reader see it first in its original form and then again in the story of Jin Wang and the story of Danny. Each of these characters represents the Monkey King but in the modern setting, Jin is the true form and Danny is his form as he struggles to be someone he isn’t.
Within Jin Wang’s first portion of the story he is shown playing with Transformers, specifically Optimus Prime. This is part of the symbolism of change within the story. Not only does this toy change from a semi to a robot, but also it changes into the leader of the good robots within its own ethos. This is the sign of the change to come for Jin. It is within this scene though that he is given sage advice from the old apothecary woman, “It’s easy to become anything you wish… …so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (Yang 29). Grim tidings but also a foreshadowing of what we will see later within the story.
There is another transformer later on. When Jin meets his friend Wei-Chen Sun we see another transformer. Wei-Chen’s transformer changes from a robot to a Monkey. Of course this is another example of the change symbolism but this time it is a foreshadowing of the truth we eventually learn about Wei-Chen.
Within the story there is quite a bit we could take at face value and walk away with a good story, but this story falls into the realm of allegory and much like many of the myths that have been handed down from generation to generation, nothing is ever exactly as it seems. The section of the story that pertains to Danny and Chin-Kee exemplifies this concept perfectly.
Within the story we find that Chinn is actually the Monkey King and he sought to save Jin from the same mistakes he had made. Danny is the transformed version of Jin, a version that has cut all ties to his Chinese heritage. In the larger scope of the story, Chin-Kee is the transformer that has become everything that Jin has rejected about his culture. In his efforts to become like everyone else he has become pale and bland and lost the things that made him special. Like the warning of the old woman, he had sacrificed his soul.
Now the story wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t follow the full pattern of the Monkey King. The King’s redemption came not when he found through his own efforts. It came when he was guided by the work of another. Within the final resolution we find that the story has changed but only slightly. When we have thought that Jin is the Monkey King throughout the story, we come to find that he is the catalyst for redemption. It is through him that Wei-Chen finds redemption and is given the chance to come back.
The story’s format allows for a quick and easy read, but this is deceptive. As the reader digs through and digests all the information new nuances can be found. Overall it is a worthwhile read.
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