I hadn’t originally planned to review all three of these books together, but after reading them, I found that they had more in common than just their author. American Born Chinese, Boxers and Saints all center on teens who are dealing with issues related to their identity and how to live within the community in which they find themselves. Do you adapt to others’ expectations, try to remake the community as you wish it to be, or leave it for something new?
American Born Chinese is an award-winning graphic novel that tells the stories of three characters as they struggle to come to terms with assimilating into a dominant culture and coming to terms with that which makes them different. It is a beautifully written and illustrated view of the experience of being Asian American, dealing with stereotypes and prejudice, and learning to be yourself.
The novel opens with the beginning of the tale of the Monkey King. The Monkey King was a powerful deity and ruled benevolently, with wisdom and might, over the monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. One day, he learned that all of the other deities were having a party. Although he had not been invited, he appeared in Heaven expecting to be welcomed. Instead he was ridiculed and shown the door. The Monkey King became furious and wreaked vengeance upon the other gods and goddesses. He returned to his kingdom angry, offended and dissatisfied. He became a pariah among the other deities and began to spend all of his time trying to outdo them at their own skills and make himself all-powerful.
The story of the Monkey King is familiar to Jin Wang, a first generation American living in San Francisco. In his neighborhood, he is one of many Chinese American kids who play together and love Transformers. When he starts school, however, things change radically. Teachers never know how to say his name. Kids bully and make fun of him, assuming his family eats dogs, making fun of his looks and his lunches. He is usually one of only a couple of Asian-American students in any classroom, and in an effort to assimilate, Jin shuns the other Asian kids. One day though, a Taiwanese student named Wei-Chen Sun joins the class, and while Jin would prefer not to be associated with him, their mutual interest in transformer-type toys brings them together.
Meanwhile, high schooler Danny, a blond-haired basketball star, is suffering from acute embarrassment. Every year, his cousin Chin-Kee arrives from China for a prolonged visit. Chin-Kee goes to school with Danny and pretty much fulfills every Chinese stereotype you can imagine. He dresses in traditional garb with a long braid in his hair. He speaks English with a heavy accent, says inappropriate things to everyone, knows the answer to every question in every class, and is just an overall embarrassment to Danny. His social life begins to suffer, and all he wants is to be rid of his annoying cousin.
Gene Luen Yang tells these three stories in parallel, showing how each character tries to assimilate to a dominant culture by destroying or hiding that which makes each of them who they really are. Friendships are hurt and character is tested as each learns that happiness and fulfillment come not from being like everyone else but from learning to be yourself. This is a great message for middle schoolers and teens, the target audience for this novel.
In Boxers & Saints, Yang turns his attention to a period in Chinese history that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans. The Boxer Rebellion, 1899-1901, was a grass-roots, nationalist uprising against foreigners and Christianity in China. The leaders of rebellion, known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, were practitioners of martial arts who experienced some success in their crusade until they were stopped by foreign armies. In this two volume set, Yang presents two viewpoints of this uprising. Boxers is the story of Little Bao, a peasant boy who becomes a rebel leader. Saints is the story of Vibiana, a peasant girl who turns to Christianity. The way Yang tells each story shows the reader the appeal that each side had for its followers while also revealing their mistakes and flaws. Bao and Vibiana are sympathetic characters who, as children, experience violence, destruction and loss. From a young age, each desires to do something great for their people, to belong to something important, to be recognized. Each also has a rich and vivid spiritual life in which they commune with spirits, and each will struggle with doubt as they try to figure out what their path should be.
Little Bao is the youngest of three brothers in a village in northern Shan-tung Province. Bao loves the springtime because that’s when his community celebrates a variety of festivals featuring theater performances about traditional gods and goddesses. A statue of the local god Tu Di Gong is always brought out for the shows and Bao thoroughly enjoys them, spending the whole year thinking about the deities and imagining them with him as he works in the fields. But one spring, the performance is interrupted by a Christian priest and his Chinese converts, many of whom are actually petty criminals. They smash the statue and take food from the villagers. When Bao’s father tries to seek justice from the magistrate, he is brutally beaten by foreign soldiers and is never the same. Floods then destroy the crops and the villagers are barely scraping by when a stranger named Red Lantern Chu arrives. He heals the locals, brings in food for them and begins teaching the young men Kung Fu. Red Lantern Chu is a member of the Big Sword Society, and he and his brother disciples go out on missions to fight against “foreign devils” like the priests and their “secondary devils,” i.e., the Chinese converts. The Big Sword Society uses violence to achieve its aims and does not hesitate to burn villages to the ground. Bao wishes to join Red Lantern but is forbidden, and instead becomes a disciple of Master Big Belly. The Master becomes a sort of spiritual guide who shows Bao how to summon the gods for battle and inhabit their bodies to fight.
Bao’s skill as a fighter and his ability to summon the gods make him a leader of the new Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. His own brothers now follow him as they go village to village, gaining converts and exacting justice. Ideally, the brother disciples live according to a moral code, but the god with whom Bao aligns seems to bully him into violating every principle. Bao is torn, wishing to save China but also do what is morally right. As the disciples get closer to Peking, their ultimate destination in the fight to reunite China, a battle looms not just between Boxers and Christians but also within Bao.
Saints details many of the same events but from Vibiana’s point of view. Vibiana is also from a small village near Bao’s. When she was born, her family never gave her a name. She was born on the fourth day of the fourth month, the fourth daughter in a family where the previous three children had died. She is simply called Four-girl, and since the word for four is a homonym for the word for death, she is considered ill fated. Her father has died, and her grandfather clearly dislikes her. All Four-girl wants is to be noticed and loved, but her attempts to please her grandfather backfire horribly. He goes so far as to declare her a devil, and Four-girl believes him. She runs to the forest and prays for death, but instead encounters a raccoon who encourages her to embrace her devilish side. When Four-girl begins to walk around with a horrible devilish expression on her face, her mother takes her for healing to Dr. Won, the acupuncturist. It is in his office that Four-girl first sees a crucifix and learns that the doctor and his wife are followers of the foreign devil who smashed Tu Di Gong’s statue. She decides that if she wants to perfect her devilish ways, she, too, should become Christian.
Given that no one ever really takes notice of Four-girl, she begins to attend catechism classes at the Wons’ house, mostly for the food they offer, but she also has many questions. After being beaten by her grandfather and then experiencing his death, for which Four-girl feels responsible, she takes to the forest again, only this time she encounters an apparition, a “girl devil” like herself. When she tells Dr. Won, he takes her to the priest, who recognizes that the spirit she is describing is Joan of Arc. Four-girl is excited to think that a fellow “devil” is inviting her to join her, and she officially joins the church taking Vibiana as her new name after being baptized. Upon finding out what she has done, Vibiana’s family is horrified, and her cousin beats her mercilessly. Vibiana runs away from home for good, following the priest Fr. Bey to his new mission near Peking where she will help take care of orphans.
The mission is a large, walled community, and it is there that Vibiana will start to consider what her calling in life really is. She learns from others how they came to Christianity, how they found their vocations. She continues to have spiritual encounters with Joan, who is living out her life before Vibiana — finding the Dauphin, leading an army, etc. Vibiana is thrilled by Joan’s exploits and decides that she, too, will be a warrior and protector of her people. Rumors of the violent exploits of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists are reaching the mission, and all inside know that eventually they will have to deal with them. But, like Bao, Vibiana will also experience fear and doubt. When she learns truths about people she has loved and trusted, when the Society reaches the mission and she has an encounter with her cousin, when she sees what happened to Joan at the end of her own mission, Vibiana wonders if she has made the right choices. All she wanted to do was help protect people and she feels as if she has failed.
The end of Saints ties in with the end of Boxers in a touching and spiritually significant way. Gene Luen Yang is Catholic, and in all three of the books reviewed here, personal spirituality is key for his characters. They are all young people working toward understanding and fulfillment, and Yang shows that this is not easy for any of them. They make mistakes and do not get clear answers to their questions or easy resolutions to their problems. They are works in progress, and I think the fact that they must live with uncertainty, pain and hardship is important for young readers to see along with the message that there is the possibility of forgiveness and healing. Readers also get a fine introduction to a bit of Chinese culture and history through these vibrantly illustrated stories. These are wonderful novels that will resonate with readers young and old, and that could spark interesting discussions at home or in a classroom.