American Born Chinese: A Dull Observation on Race and Culture

The mishandling of racism shown in the show does nothing to spark engaging conversations as the graphic novel did.

Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese has been a popular young adult novel since its debut in 2006. With themes such as racism, self-discovery, and navigating friendships, the novel makes a great impression on teens. The TV adaptation is no different. Even with the subtle changes for relevancy in today’s time, Disney+’s American Born Chinese provides an exciting look into how teens of color navigate a world in which they are othered.

American Born Chinese follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a high schooler who struggles with normal teenage problems; not knowing his place in life, having an overbearing father, and being one of the few students in his school of Asian descent. What further complicates his normal teenage problems is the introduction of Wei-Chen (Jim Liu), a new Taiwanese exchange student at his school.

Jin would rather everyone think that he is just a normal teenager. The world around him shows him otherwise. His father has unattainable goals for him that he doesn’t share, his mom wants him to be more involved in his culture, and his school is incredibly racist, especially to those of Asian descent. Wei-Chen, on the other hand, is somewhat the opposite of Jin. He seems to not care about white validation; he speaks perfect Mandarin and is in tune with his culture. Wei-Chen is confident and has found his way into heaven of all places, whereas Jin is still attempting to figure out what his place is in high school. There’s also one special thing about Wei-Chen.

Wei-Chen happens to be the son of Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), who is known in known as the Monkey King, a key figure in the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. He is entangled in a huge celestial battle involving a plot to overthrow Heaven, and he has arrived in California against his father’s wishes to search for the Fourth Scroll, an ancient artifact that could be the key to preventing the uprising. Wei-Chen believes that Jin is his guide to finding the fourth seal, and this is where our story starts.

Image Courtesy of Disney+

Wei-Chen and Jin are paired because why not pair the Asian kid with the other Asian kid, even though Jin does not speak Mandarin? For Jin, this is the worst thing that could happen to him. He has tried hard to distance himself from being known as the “Asian kid.” Wei-Chen’s presence sets up an interesting parallel against Jin’s world. Not just because Wei-Chen is from Heaven but because Jin is hopelessly attempting to find himself, whereas, Wei-Chen is already on his life path. Jin and Wei-Chen’s worlds collide in multiple fight scenes, meme culture, celestial battles, and high school parties. As with most young adult series, there are tough topics that find themselves being discussed in a shallow manner.

The problem with many series that feature people of color is their tendency to use racism as a bargaining chip. If racism is discussed, it’s either a light-hearted disagreement or a vivid trauma. The graphic novel was praised because it allowed racism to be shown and reconstituted how racism affects the ones who suffer from it and who causes it. The series, instead, chooses to address racism in the series in such a passive manner that it does nothing but appease the white gaze.

Instead of treating racism as a violent institutional act, it’s treated as a set of disagreements that are interpersonal. For example, one of the motifs in the series is Jamie Yao (Ke Huy Quan), an actor who, within the universe of the American Born Chinese universe, played a caricatured Asian character on a ’90s sitcom called Beyond Repair. In episode one, Jin, in an attempt to get away from Wei-Chen, trips and becomes a new viral meme using the caricature from the series. While Yo does give a heartfelt and passionate response to being typecasted and used as a caricature, this is undercut by the announcement that Yo is bringing the caricatured show back and will star in it.

Image Courtesy of Disney+

There’s another instance in which Jin falls, and the students create a racist caricature using the Beyond Repair TV series. When one of the other only Asian characters on the show, Suzy Nakamura, decides to protest for him, Jin tells everyone it is just a joke, and he is not offended by it. This leads to a heartfelt conversation between Jin and Suzy, where Suzy states, “I disagree with your decision today, but I respect your honesty.” The video is never brought up again, and it makes me wonder why it was ever written into the show, to begin with.

The series does an amazing job when it comes to showcasing Jin’s struggles with his culture; it does an amazing job setting Jin and Wei-Chen as parallels against each other; the series even does an amazing job of showcasing high school culture; however, the show fails to offer exceptional commentary that young viewers need to understand; which is what racism, institutional and internalized is and how we should address it.

Mind you, The American Born Chinese graphic novel has been praised for addressing racism, and the novel addresses racism in a productive manner. Disney’s adaptation does an amazing job with casting; Jim Liu is a Taiwanese actor; Yeo Yann Yann is Malaysian; Chin Han is a Singaporean, and Daniel Wu is American-born. The series even serves as a nice Everything Everywhere All at Once reunion. We even have the fabulous Michelle Yeoh showing up in many episodes. The series does a great job of creating the feeling of a young adult series.

However, the show fails to address the big ideas that made the graphic novel to be a success. American Born Chinese is a great lighthearted show full of Chinese mythology, great acting, and wonderful set designs. The show is a great addition to the Disney+ family and has much to offer if there is a season two. On the other hand, the mishandling of racism shown in the show does nothing to spark engaging conversations as the graphic novel did.

Read Deareyes’ review of Shazam: Fury of the Gods here!

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