I’ve been on a big kick to read more graphic novels. One, because I like the visuals, and two, because I can read them in a day or less. Let’s be honest, it helps increase my book count. This particular graphic novel attracted my attention because it’s by the same author as a book I’ve previously reviewed, Saints. The author, Gene Luen Yang, has done a good job of sharing his parent’s Chinese culture with a dash of his own U.S. culture as well.
In this work, Yang explores the pitfalls and trials of being a first generation American. I appreciated that his story is universal. It’s complex, which allows various backgrounds to find something that they can relate to. Not only does he have to deal with being from a different ethnicity than the majority of his European-American counterparts, he also has to deal with being different from the Japanese-Americans and fresh-off-the-boat Taiwanese immigrants. He does a good job of making this identity struggle personal. And the graphic novel medium offers a great way to visualize this identity crisis. He uses a Chinese religious myth to relate a similar identity story (i.e. the Monkey King) and, while I didn’t get the relationship between the two story-lines, by the end it became super clear to me what was going on.
There’s another conflict going on as well and that is his relationship with the European-American students. He’s not anti-American but he’s honest about how some of the students feel about him not being white. They whisper racial epithets to him and declare that he’s not good enough to date white girls. This creates a complex within himself where he feels he has to become more “white” in order to be accepted by them. This means looking like them (which translate to getting a Timbelake-circa-2002 perm) and distancing himself from the other Asian students.
Ultimately, he learns that by distancing himself from who he is and focusing on who he idolizes, he’s losing his soul. He’s forced to ask the age-old questions we all do in Jr. high and high school, is it worth it? What do we lose when we sacrifice our friends and family in order to achieve what society at-large tells us who we are isn’t good enough. Whether you’re new to the U.S. or been here since the Mayflower, we’ve all had to face the same dilemmas.