Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

“But You Are Still a Monkey”: American Born Chinese and Racial Self-Acceptance

Mike Cadden

Mike Cadden is a professor of English and director of childhood studies at Missouri Western State University where he teaches classes in children’s and young adult literature. He has published extensively in these areas, served as president of the Children's Literature Association, and in 2008 received the Missouri Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Gene Luen Yang’s Printz Award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese has been hailed as a hallmark of young adult literature dealing with race and ethnicity. Scholars have addressed the book’s treatment of racial identity (beyond complaints of racial stereotype); what remains unconsidered is the life that lies ahead of Jin Wang and what the author suggests about Jin’s acceptance of his identity. While it is true, as one review of the novel characterizes, that the novel is “a well-crafted work that aptly explores issues of self-image, cultural identity, transformation, and self-acceptance” and that “this novel explores the impact of the American dream on those outside the dominant culture” (Crawford 240), it fails to point out exactly what those explorations yield. Jared Gardner points out that Yang’s novel does not “promise that cultural identity offers a safe haven or an easy answer” and that Yang uses the “graphic narrative's necessarily interactive nature to force the reader into a position of taking an active role in making meaning out of what can not be spoken: the conclusions, the road map as to how to move forward” (147), but my complaint is not against open-endedness; it is about trajectory. I would agree with Gardner’s assertion about the freeing, open-endedness that the novel offered if it had not the parallel narrative of the Monkey King, a narrative that concludes with a promise of the Monkey King’s perpetual subservience, set up against Jin Wang’s narrative. The title of this essay comes from the words spoken by a guard to the Monkey King upon the latter’s uninvited arrival at a dinner party for deities. The guard makes it clear that the Monkey King “may be a king—[he] may even be a deity—but [he is] still a monkey” (15), and so he may not enter the party. The rest of the novel takes on the question of what it means to be a monkey . . . or (as the parallel narrative suggests) an American-born Chinese. What does it mean for the reader of any ethnicity to see Jin Wang identify with the Monkey King at the end of the story?

The story is told in three interwoven narrative strands set up in three different parts. Two strands are directly related by character and time, though they shift in genre; one strand is the book’s introductory narrative featuring the story of the Chinese mythological figure of the Monkey King. The Monkey King narrative tells the story of how the Monkey King is laughed out of heaven upon attempting to enter a party for deities. Though he is himself a deity, he is told that because he is also a monkey, he is not permitted to enter. He rages against the injustice and attacks the guard and all of the deities in attendance. He returns to his home and engages in advanced Kung Fu in order to make himself not only more powerful but different. He emerges in the shape of a man rather than in the shape of a monkey and terrorizes those who mocked him. The other deities complain to the emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of all things, who tries to counsel the Monkey King to accept his identity as a monkey, which he has abandoned. When he refuses, the Monkey King is imprisoned under a mountain of stone for five hundred years until the monk Wong Lai-Tsao shows up to enlist the Monkey King as a disciple who serves the monk on his quest.

The second strand is the story of Jin Wang, a first-generation American-born boy of Chinese ethnicity. He moves from a Chinese community in San Francisco to an unspecified Anglo community in the United States and tries to navigate the complicated ethnic ignorance and prejudice of teachers and fellow students. The third strand turns out to be an extension of the second: Jin Wang is transformed at the end of his narrative into “Danny,” a blue-eyed, fair-haired Anglo adolescent. The story shifts from a principally realistic narrative into a situation comedy (complete with a laugh track) starring a racially and ethnically stereotyped character named “Chin Kee,” purportedly Danny’s cousin, who visits Danny and causes him untold embarrassment.

The three strands are presented in three groups. In the first triad of strands we see the introduction of the challenge to the respective protagonists’ identity; in the second we see the conscious choice of the main character to change himself to fit better into the culture; in the third we see the revelation of each character and an acceptance of himself and his place in culture. At the end of the third triad, the Monkey King reveals himself to be Chin Kee, Jin Wang’s “conscience” and a “sign-post to [Jin Wang’s/Danny’s] soul,” (221), and Jin Wang’s estranged friend Wei-Chen is revealed to be the disillusioned son of the Monkey King. The book ends with these three strands coming together and Jin Wang both accepting his identity and reconciling with Wei-Chen.

Recently Ramón Saldívar has offered the term “speculative realism” as a “way of getting at the revisions of realism and fantasy into speculative forms that are seeming to shape the invention of new narrative modes in contemporary fiction” (3). “Speculative realism [is] a hybrid crossing of the fictional modes of the speculative genres, naturalism, social realism, surrealism, magical realism, ‘dirty’ realism, and metaphysical realism” (5). Speculative realism is part of Saldívar’s “Postrace aesthetic” that explores the thematics of race in the new millennium. “One way in which this speculative realism appears is allegorically, as a basis for recognizing and understanding the construction of the new political destinies we may witness taking shape among diasporic groups in the US today” (14). While Saldívar does not discuss Yang’s work, it seems clear that Yang is just such a writer. Yang blends forms (graphic novel and young adult literature) with genres (folklore, fantasy, realism) to investigate the implications of race in the twenty-first century. Multiple relationships are investigated in the narrative. The blend of genres enables Yang to consider the relationship between animal, machine, and human, which allows for consideration of the degree to which identity is chosen, constructed, or simply inherited and accepted (essentialism). American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. The narratives rotate between fantasy based on the ancient Chinese legends to the Bildungsroman of a Chinese-American boy to an absurd “sit-com” presentation about a stereotypical Chinese attending his white cousin’s high school. While Gene Yang himself has discussed the implications of his use of the consciously stereotypical Chin-Kee (buck-toothed, speech-impeded, over-achieving, lascivious, cat-eating) in his Printz acceptance speech, little attention has been paid to the more subtle issue of racial identity: what does it mean for the Monkey King to be a monkey, a content and subservient monkey, and what does it mean for him to suggest that Jin accept what is implied to be a parallel position?  Much of what that means is determined in this genre blending because we are left with a direct comparison between the principle figure of the mythological tale and the principle figure of the Bildungsroman in realism.

Children’s literature often employs animal characters as a way to distance the reader from the demographics of character. All characters might be mice or badgers for no reason, in contrast to the metaphoric use of animals in folklore that serve as shorthand for virtue and vice. Race is often removed from a narrative with the use of animals, though certainly it can be present through the use of historically and culturally-endorsed symbols of race, such as the Monkey (See Song’s essay for more history on this particular use). In this young adult graphic novel the animal character is placed next to the human co-protagonist as a way to provide a parallel narrative of epiphany regarding essential racial identity and its attendant role in society. We might consider the animal as used in this specifically young adult narrative. The animal character stands in for ambiguity, the transitional, the belittled, the adolescent--as in the case of the eponymous Stuart Little (Gubar). John Morganstern contends that it all depends on the angle from which you look at the animal character—is it an animal-man or man-animal? Is it an adolescent becoming adult or the mark of insufficient development of the species or race?

The animal character in this novel ends up serving as metaphor about race, whatever else it might do. It is not an innocent stand-in as in much children’s literature; it has a history of racist associations; it is used as a marker of transition to the adult and self-acceptance of identity, a genre-defining theme in young adult literature. The reader is left to infer how the conclusions the Monkey King comes to about his identity and role in the cosmos are applicable to Jin Wang as an American-born Chinese. Very early in the novel’s first narrative strand, the Monkey King takes on human shape after his humiliation at being rejected from the party in heaven. His new shape is not only a rejection of his monkey nature but is also the shape of true power and worth in this narrative world. Tze-Yo-Tzuh is human in appearance, after all. Tze-Yo-Tzuh finds the Monkey King’s new shape a problem, saying “I created you. I say that you are a monkey, therefore you are a monkey” (69) and then a few pages later, “A monkey I intended you to be. A monkey you are” (81). The Monkey King decides to take his “true” form when he finally subjects himself to Tze-Yo-Tzuh’s will. In all cases—the Monkey King’s, his son’s, Jin Wang’s—the initial transformation is from not merely one form to another, but from what is perceived to be the lesser form to the greater. To move from monkey to human (even if one is also a deity) is a move “up” in terms of creation; a move from Chinese-American to European-American is also a step up in another hierarchy—racial dominance. The Monkey King has to relinquish this superior shape he has assumed. Jin becomes Danny, the white boy, in the third narrative—either literally or psychologically--until he is turned back by the Monkey King. I say “turned back,” though it might be more fitting to say “released,” as it is a release of Kung Fu that returns the Monkey King to his “true” shape. Jin Wang is fighting physical and/or psychological nature to maintain his Danny form. When the Monkey King sheds his Chin-Kee disguise and reveals himself to Danny, he tells him “now that I’ve revealed my true form, perhaps it is time to reveal yours . . . Jin Wang.” (213-4). “True form” is in bold in the text. This is an intervention implied to be for Jin’s own good as well as the good of the order of things. He is reshaped, released, returned. He is put back into his place by one who has been put into his own place, which suggests the internalization of that inferiority by one oppressed.

A second metaphor for identity that the novel features to complement the essentialist animal/racial metaphor is one of mechanism, and this is principally told in the section of the narrative devoted to realism. One would assume that such a metaphor would balance social construction with essentialism in order to complicate the issue as the “speculative realistic” text ought. The novel introduces early on a metaphor for transforming oneself. Jin plays with a Transformer action figure—a metaphor that we are directly invited to consider by the narrative. The toy can change from a robot to a truck and back again. Jin tells an old woman who asks him what he wants to be when he grows up that he wants to be a Transformer. He explains it as being “more than meets the eye” (28). Here it seems like he is expressing the desire to be mysterious, versatile, adaptable, complex, undetermined, and to be what the situation calls for—something that the narrative value system of the novel never again raises as a legitimate option. The old woman dramatically warns him, “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (29). The metaphor of mechanism has an essentialist reading imposed on it here. The Transformer is given a soul and a primary setting. The old woman’s statement is followed by awkward silence depicted through dialogue and narration-free illustration so that this information can sink in. The reader is left with the powerful suggestion that to change is really to sell out oneself (and potentially others). The transformer toy becomes a metaphor for deception—either of lying to oneself about what one is or as a tool to deceive others for a (good) purpose. When the Monkey King sends his own son to help Jin, he gives the young, transformed monkey a Transformer toy that moves between the forms of monkey and robot. “Let [the Transformer] remind you of who you are,” the Monkey King advises his son (217). How should the Transformer serve to remind him? How does the Transformer serve as a metaphor?  When a toy can assume two forms, which one of them is the “true” form? Does a Transformer, something that can be either thing, present the possibility of a “wrong” form? The novel itself is pretty clear about transformation—it should be temporary and only used to serve others. One has an essential identity, and one should return to it.

In American Born Chinese, intentional transformation for change is never a real option. It is self-delusion. It is clear either way that it is wrong for Jin to choose to be Danny—for him to make a change or even to desire it, so the degree to which this narrative is open-ended is questionable. The Monkey King tells Jin that he comes to serve as Jin’s “conscience—as a sign post to [Jin’s] soul” (221). When Jin asks the Monkey King “so what am I supposed to do now?” (223) he is told “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey” (223). It is here that we, and Jin, are given the only answer that the novel provides to that question, but that answer is pretty clear. The Monkey King tells how he should have realized how good it is to be a monkey, but he is never really “just” a monkey: he is an anthropomorphized deity. He has been told by his creator, however, that a monkey is what he is. Regardless of what else he is, and how impressive those sites of identity are, “Monkey” is the primary setting. He may be a king, he may even be a deity, but he is primarily and essentially and only a monkey.

Yang’s narrative performs a tricky but subtle evasion following the final interchange between the Monkey King and Jin. The explicit essentialist claim made by the ironically anthropomorphized character is offered in juxtaposition to Jin’s situation. After all, the novel invites us to focus on the parallels between the Monkey King’s experience and Jin Wang’s. Both tales are Bildungsromane that conclude with the presumed re-incorporation of the rebellious youth into society “as himself” but with self-awareness and maturity. This is a young adult novel, after all. Each character begins content with his lot in life, ignorant of the race/species bias of others in the world. Each has his own revelation that his would-be peers consider him inferior. Each character responds with anger and self-loathing that implies an acceptance of that inferiority. They each reconstitute themselves through a transformation that leads to destructive behavior, and each is encouraged to resume his original and “true” form by a deity—that is, after being convinced by that deity what the true and only possibility is. In Jin’s case, the persuasive deity is the Monkey King himself. Their respective stories conclude with the persuaded character accepting his “real” and divinely-intended self, which is in an inferior position relative to others of his kind.

The Monkey King offers his narrative as a parallel to Jin’s: “It’s good to be a monkey.” So what is the equivalent of “monkey” for Jin? What is Jin Wang’s essential defining feature? Not his humanity, or his gender, or his age, or some unique and special quality. No. Jin Wang is first and last a racial minority in the way that the Monkey King is first and last a monkey. It is good to be a racial minority. To accept that apparently means to be subordinate, to listen to popular, white Greg who, like Tze-Yo-Tzu, can put the lesser one of his kind in his place. Our “betters” have the power (and responsibility) to make us recognize ourselves as what they say we are . . . as inferior to the main group and, well, still not invited to the party. Their being “better” depends upon it, after all. We buy it. It is sold down the chain from Tze-Yo-Tzu to the Monkey King, from the Monkey King to Jin Wang, from Jin Wang to Wei-Chen. We could argue that the Monkey King sells to Jin what might be considered the path of least resistance, though that is not the argument made for acceptance. The book does not end with the Monkey at the party or Jin at the prom (or anywhere) with Amelia. The narratives end with the great Monkey King a servant to humanity and Jin Wang self-segregated from the larger community. As Tze-Yo-Tzuh tells the recalcitrant Monkey King that he is a “silly little monkey” (69) among more important deities, Jin is left a “silly little Chinese” among more important ethnicities at the end of the narrative—implicitly inferior in status to his white counterparts, though presumably as content and at as much peace as the Monkey King in his “true form.”

This is not really a choice; it is about domestication, and it is the will of heaven, no less. Yang’s parallel narrative infuses the Jin Wang narrative with a sense of heavenly destiny. Do not fight it. It is the way of the universe. It is not only a losing fight, it is wrong to fight it. Lan Dong tells us that “such an ending indicates the hope that the characters may finally make peace with their true identities” (245), and Hathaway argues that the Monkey King urges Jin to reconcile with his own identity and with Wei-Chen (47). What they do not tell us is what such “peace” and “reconciliation” means. Min Hyoung Song invites us to examine the relationship between the racialized monkey image and Wei-Chen that “points directly to the need to confront a painful visual history of racial disparagement that has equated the animal with the subhuman” (92). That confrontation is necessary, but it is not invited by Yang’s narrative. Yang’s narrative shows Wei-Chen’s pain and vulnerability at the end of the narrative through the loaded image of the monkey which further complicates what we are to do with Jin Wang’s equation with the Monkey King himself. Wei-Chen’s presence at the end of the narrative is necessary for the reconciliation story and for Jin’s self-acceptance, but Wei-Chen’s “salvation” comes only when we and Jin, focalized through Jin Wang, see him as a vulnerable, pitiable, cute monkey. Are we to feel the pity that only one in a superior position can offer? Are we glad that the two little monkeys have found each other and are safely sharing tea in a culturally-appropriate restaurant at story’s end?

The use of the Monkey King’s story of self-realization as a parallel narrative to Jin Wang’s puts Gene Yang in a bind at the end of the novel. If we take the parallel to be absolute, Jin is to make his peace with the fact that he is a lesser human as the Monkey King is a lesser deity, and that it begins and ends with race. The conclusion is that one is to be content as both separate and unequal, and that this is a divine arrangement. Be yourself. Apparently Jin can not be himself while dating Amelia or developing friendships with white kids or playing on the school basketball team because, well, that is for white kids. A web board discussion devoted to American Born Chinese, which Yang cites in his Printz Award speech, included a person confessing, “[I] didn't want to be a person who had ADHD, I wanted to be normal and I kept trying to find a way to do it, I searched for a few years, but couldn't find a way to do it. Finally, I guess I just had to accept just who and what I was. Unfortunately, this urge still comes to me once in a great while.” This person identifies the goal as “being normal.” He or she also sets up a dichotomy between “people with ADHD” and people who are “normal” as opposed to “everyone has a problem or condition that pushes us outside of normal.”  If there are ADHD kids in American Born Chinese, we do not see them. The kid with ADHD also fails to explain what the implications are for accepting himself as “abnormal.”

To be fair to Yang, it matters that we consider Danny as figurative and Jin’s self-delusion and that the Monkey King “awakens him” from a dream—a bad portal fantasy. Yang means for us to see the Monkey King as a sort of salvation: he returns Jin’s soul to him. Yang’s narrative is squarely focused more on cautioning the reader to be honest about who she is than on offering some sort of hope for transcendence or a way to be in the larger world, as these other critics have echoed. Writing about American Born Chinese, Jonathan Doughty says that the novel reminds us about a paradox: “is identity one’s possession or one’s possessor? Or, rather: How do we possess our identities, and how do they possess us?” (60). Yang wants the reader to see Danny as a sort of demon possession. The ending has Jin in possession of himself. As a young adult novel, a genre that tends to offer hopeful rather than happy endings, this book offers the reader a protagonist who is no longer what the narrative considers self-deluded and able to make choices from a position of honest self-perception. It feels hopeful. It is not Yang who has created a peripheral existence for Jin Wang, after all, but the culture in which he is set by Yang’s narrative. Clearly Jin has a developed double consciousness—the ability to look at himself through the eyes of others—and can now decide what to do with that. Yang makes it clear, however, that adopting the viewpoint of others is not an acceptable option, and there is no real estate between selling out and bowing out. This is odd terrain for young adult fiction, which tends to seek a way for the protagonist to be in the world. Robyn McCallum describes that adolescent tradition as one in which “central characters are represented as internally fragmented and/or solipsistic, and their stories articulate a quest for a sense of identity which is stable, coherent, unique and whole” (68). The form requires the assumption of a “singular and essential self […] which underlies a person’s own sense of, or more specifically desire for, a single and stable personal identity within, and relation to, the world and to others” (68). The relation to the world for Jin is, well, segregation. That Yang employs doubles—animal, mechanistic, racially-other—may simply be his strategy of representing a developmental process (77). That development is seen at what can be argued to be the story’s real ending: the almost post-narrative representation of a video still-shot in which Wei-Chen and Jin Wang are singing. This image is meant to call to mind a youtube video by the “back dorm boys” who operate in spite of race without denying it. It is a form of appropriation that neither celebrates race nor makes it central. Race will always be with you, but there are ways to carve out a space. I can not show you the happy ending, Yang seems to say, but I can tell you that it is not possible (whatever that ends up being) if you are in denial about yourself.

Yang’s narrative can be acquitted of the accusations of complete hopelessness and second-class advocacy, but the ending of both the main narrative and the visual youtube reference feel too ambiguous (and ephemeral) given the narrative weight and momentum of the twin narratives of Jin and the Monkey King that has accrued behind it. It remains ethically and narratologically ambiguous when clarity is essential for such a high-stakes novel of racial identity. As it is with books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Ella Enchanted, Yang’s book provides a vague sense of resolution for which the reader is simultaneously grateful and unsure about how it actually works as a resolution. It does not bear up under scrutiny. We are simply relieved that things work out in some way that sets things right. While the narrative implies that racial denial is simply unacceptable, and makes a case for moving forward, it does not show us what moving forward looks like, which strikes me as much more important in this novel than in novels generally. The Monkey King may offer Jin Wang acceptance of his racial identity, but Jin is left with really nothing but his racial identity. Is the choice of Danny as race erasure as laughable to the other students as Chin-kee, the over-ethnicized option? Jin is the middle option between Danny and Chin-kee, the realistic character in realism, but while the novel makes clear that neither race-erasing delusion nor laughable stereotype are acceptable options, we are still left with Jin Wang’s question: “so what am I supposed to do now?”


Works Cited

“Back Dorm Boys. I Want it That Way.”

Crawford, Philip Charles. “Review of American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.” School Library Journal 52.9 (Sept. 2006): 240.

Dong, Lan. “Reimagining the Monkey King in Comics: Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature. Eds. Julia Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone: 231-51.

Doughty, Jonathan. “More than Meets the ‘I’: Chinese Transnationality in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies. 1 (2010): 54-60.

Gardner, Jared. "Same Difference: Graphic Alterity in the Work of Gene Luen Yang, Adrian Tomine, and Derek Kirk Kim." Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle. Ed. Frederick Luis Aldama. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2010: 132-147.

Gubar, Marah. “Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescence in E. B. White’s Stuart Little.” The Lion and the Unicorn 27.1 (January 2003): 98-119.

Hathaway, Rosemary V. “‘More than Meets the Eye’: Transformative Intertextuality in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.” The ALAN Review 37.1 (Fall 2009): 47-47.

McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1999.

Morganstern, John. “Children and Other Talking Animals.” The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (January 2000): 110-27.

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative 21.1(January 2013): 1-18.

Song, Min Hyoung. “‘How good it is to be A Monkey’”: Comics, Racial Formation, and American Born Chinese. Mosaic 43.1 (March 2010): 73-93.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006.

---. “Printz Award Winner Speech.” Young Adult Library Services 6.1 (2007): 11-13.



Mike Cadden

Volume 17, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, March/April 2014

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"“But You Are Still a Monkey”: American Born Chinese and Racial Self-Acceptance" © Mike Cadden, 2014.

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