This Chinese-American cartoonist forces us to face racist stereotypes
The first comic that cartoonist Gene Luen Yang ever bought was a two-in-one issue that featured a man made out of rocks and an intergalactic cyborg. He loved comics, especially the kind that featured space aliens. So he started making his own.
He and a friend drew comics and sold them for 50 cents each. Among their earliest creations were the “Trans-Smurfers,” Smurfs who transformed into robotic fruit. They also flew and fought crime.
But as his comic book interests morphed into a career, Yang began to to introduce more of what he calls “intimacy” into his stories, more autobiographical moments.
“When you read a well-done comic book, it’s like reading a page out of somebody’s diary,” Yang told his audience at the 2007 National Book Festival. “Nowadays, the most popular comics, the most well-received comics are things like ‘Maus’ and ‘Persepolis,’ where you really get this intimate interaction between the reader and the creator.” (“Maus,” by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, documents his father’s tales as a Holocaust survivor, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir “Persepolis” follows the author in her teen years in Tehran, Iran, during the Islamic Revolution.)
Six years after “Persepolis” was published, Yang released “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel that detailed what it’s like to grow up Asian in America.
Although the work, released 10 years ago this month, doesn’t completely shy away from the superhero tradition of comics, the graphic novel is grounded in small school-age moments that weigh heavily on its Asian-American characters: the well-meaning teacher mispronouncing a student’s name, the blatant racism found in schoolyard taunts and difficulties of trying to fit in.
The book features Cousin Chin-Kee (as in “chinky”) who is a mishmash of some of the worst historical — and modern — American stereotypes used against Asians.
“Sometimes a stereotype needs to be dressed up in bright yellow skin and a queue in order for folks to recognize its severity,” Yang once said. (Queue refers to a hairstyle historically worn by men in China.)
“Chinese” won several awards and became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award. Yang has since worked on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics, released a set of two graphic novels on the Boxer Rebellion called “Boxers & Saints,” and is partly responsible for a new spin on Superman for DC Comics. “New Super-Man” chronicles how a 17-year-old in China inherits the Man of Steel’s powers.
After receiving a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation last week, the PBS NewsHour spoke with the award-winning author on “American Born Chinese,” the inspiration behind the grotesque Chin-Kee, and the one regret he has about his cherished graphic novel.
Congratulations on the MacArthur award! What’s it like being dubbed a MacArthur genius?
It was completely out of left field. It has not stopped being nuts. It’s something that’s been really hard for me to wrap my head around.
You’re one of few cartoonists to be crowned a genius in the history of the award. As someone who has said that “comics don’t make you sexy,” how has public opinion of comics changed in the past decade?
I still stand by that statement, but I do think comic books have gotten a little bit sexier, not to the point of actually being sexy yet though. I do think it’s really different now than when I started.
I started doing comics as an adult in the mid to late 90s. Back then, nobody knew what a graphic novel was. The graphic novel section in most libraries was stuck with non-fiction. You’d go to a bookstore, and maybe they’d have a shelf of graphic novels, or they would shelve “Calvin and Hobbes” next to “Maus.” It wasn’t the same general public awareness that there is today. So I feel incredibly lucky to be involved in comics during this incredible growth period.
Your award-winning graphic novel “American Born Chinese” was released 10 years ago this month. It’s a coming-of-age tale that ultimately weaves three stories together. Can you tell me how this particular graphic novel got started?
When I started, it was not a graphic novel. I started “American Born Chinese” as a mini comic series. So I would finish a chapter. I’d print it up at my local Kinko’s. I’d staple it by hand, and then I’d sell it. I’d sell it through stores, mostly at [University of California,] Berkeley. There was a store called Comic Relief that use to carry comics on consignment. I’d try to sell it by hand. At the end of the day, maybe I’d sell a dozen or two. At that time, I had a dream of eventually collecting it into a graphic novel, but to have it full color. To have it from the big book publishers, that was well beyond what I was thinking at the time.
Why was “American Born Chinese” a story best told in comic form?
For about five years, I had done a few stories with Asian American protagonists, but their cultural heritage never played an important part of the story. I knew I wanted to do some kind of story where that was the focus, because my own cultural heritage played such an important part in how I find my place in the world.
For “American Born Chinese,” I really wanted to tackle stereotypes head on. I just think it’s more powerful when you do it visually. Like, if I were to describe the Cousin Chin-Kee character to you in text, I don’t think it would have the same sort of emotional impact as seeing him on the page.
Right. The character of Cousin Chin-Kee, who is an amalgamation of some of the worst stereotypes of yesteryear, is a needle scratch as soon as he appears in the graphic novel. Can you tell me about his creation?
What I really wanted to do was tie historical images of Chinese-Americans, Asians, and Asian-Americans with what I was seeing in pop culture at the time. I think the modern American can look at the buck-toothed images of Chinese and Chinese-Americans that were really prevalent in the late 1800s or early 1900s. As modern Americans, we can recognize that as racist, but then there were also a lot of things that were happening all around me that I felt were connected to that, but most people didn’t draw that connection.
For instance, in the early months of working on the book, an incident happened that we now refer to as the Chinese spy plane incident, where a Chinese or American fighter plane went down in or around Chinese air space depending on how you took the facts.
As a response, an American by the name of Pat Oliphant drew this political cartoon of Uncle Sam going into a Chinese restaurant and being served by a slant-eyed, buck-toothed waiter. He’s served a plate of “crispy fried cat gizzards with noodles.”
So, when I saw that, to me, it was obvious. It was obvious that Oliphant was drawing from the same old racist roots. I was just a little bit shocked that nobody else thought that way. In the book, I wanted to connect those things together.
There were lots of other things too: The popularity of William Hung is very controversial among Asian-Americans. He was the “American Idol” contestant. A lot of people feel that there was something racist about how infatuated America got with him.
I hadn’t realized that some of the racist inspirations for Chin-Kee were culled from times as early as the aughts. Since “American Born Chinese” has been published, can you name other moments in American pop culture when Cousin Chin-Kee just keeps coming back, so to speak?
I think there’s a general question of why haven’t Asian-Americans been featured more prominently in American media. I think that’s definitely changing. I think we are now seeing Asian and Asian-looking faces in our movies, on television and even in books at an increased rate. I still don’t think that we’re where we want to be. I just think for a lot of Americans, their idea of an Asian or an Asian-American is pretty two-dimensional.
How did people originally respond to the character when the graphic novel was published?
I would say I’ve gotten different types of feedback about the Cousin Chin-Kee character. Some older Asian-Americans told me when they got to that character, it was so painful for them to look at. It was hard for them to finish the book, and that was what I was kind of going for.
Some other Asian Americans around my age or people who are younger who grew up in a minority setting where they’re not around a lot of Asian-Americans; they totally understand. They think he’s funny, and they understand that he’s funny in this really painful way.
And then — it hasn’t happened in a while — but every now and then somebody will come up to me, usually it’s at a comic book convention, and they’ll say, “You know that Cousin Chin-Kee character? He’s so cute. Do you have a T-shirt with him, because he’s so cute.” And I was not going for cute when I designed that character.
One of the regrets that I have with the book, like if I were to do the whole thing over again, is I would try to exaggerate the Cousin Chin-Kee character even more, to cut down on some of that.
Oh, wow. That’s an actual regret you have?
Yeah. I feel like I didn’t exaggerate him enough. If I had exaggerated him a little more, then maybe people would not find him cute.
Shifting to another character, in “American Born Chinese,” we also see the story of Jin Wang and his struggle to assimilate into American culture. Jin’s experience feels so personal, it appears to mirror your own struggles growing up. As a son of immigrant parents, did you hide your true self?
I think I wanted to. That feeling of wanting to divorce myself from my own cultural background, from my cultural heritage, is a lot of what’s behind the book.
Jin Wang is actually a misspelling of my name that I encountered more than once. My parents were originally going to give me the name J-I-N, like the character in the book. And they decided not to, because they felt like if they could find an English name that was close, that it would give me a leg up in American society. So, they found G-E-N-E.
But even so, people would still misspell my name J-I-N from time to time. I just thought it was a weird thing, you know? “Gene” is an actual American name, but people still misspelled my name as “Jin.” Same with “Wang.” So, a lot of times my last name will get misspelled “Wang.” And I’ve talked to other Yangs and other Wangs and that does seem like a pretty common thing.
A lot of the racism that Jin and his friends experience were pulled from my own life, especially from late elementary school into junior high.
At one point, an herbalist tells Jin that “it’s easy to become anything you wish … so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” I’m curious whether you had a similar epiphany — that you were avoiding your true self.
I don’t think it was one point. I think it was actually throughout my college years. This was the early 90s. At Berkeley, that was when I first started calling myself an Asian-American. Before that, I called myself Oriental. That was the first time I was in a majority Asian environment. It wasn’t even a majority. During my four years, that was when Asian Americans became the largest group numerically.
So, for the first time, I was around a lot of other Asian-Americans. It wasn’t weird. Being Asian-American didn’t stand out. I took some sociology classes. I talked to my Asian-American friends who were a lot wiser than me, who thought through these issues. And I think that was when I started being able to explain and understand the discomfort I had had since I was a kid. And it was also the time that I realized that it wasn’t just me. This experience of feeling like an outsider wasn’t unique to me. It was actually a very common thing. Especially among immigrant kids.
Right. In fact, we see in “American Born Chinese” that stereotypes don’t just affect Jin. One of his friends, Suzy, opens up to him about being the target of a racial slur. And it’s such a painful panel to see Suzy try to process the hatred she witnessed in that moment. As a parent, do you have conversations with your children about stereotypes and how to react to them, how to process them?
I do, I do. I have talks with them. I’m not totally sure they understand what “American Born Chinese” is all about. Maybe that’s a good thing.
The school they go to is predominantly Filipino, and they are half Chinese and half Korean, and I wonder if they feel like outsiders or not. My feeling is that they probably don’t, because a lot of the parents of their friends are like me. My kid’s friends are the grandkids of immigrants, so they’re one generation removed from the immigrant experience. And I think, in a lot of ways, Filipinos, East Asians, Southeast Asians, do tend toward a more collective Asian-American identity, especially as you get further away from the immigrant experience, right?
I’m lucky. I get a chance to talk to different folks about my work, and it seems like when I meet young Asian-Americans in communities where there’s a large enough Asian-American population, they just never felt like an outsider. And even though it’s bad for my royalties… it’s probably good for the next generation to have my book feel a little bit alien.
You’re the first graphic novelist to be named the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Ultimately, what would you want young minds to take away from a work like “American Born Chinese”?
I hope that a kid who has never felt part of the majority, a kid who has always felt like an outsider, will understand, regardless of what it is that makes them an outsider, that that is not an experience that’s unique to them. Actually, more of us feel like outsiders than insiders. In a weird way, that kind of ties us all together.
Interview has been edited and condensed.