I’m not sure at what age I was that I learned the term ABC, or American Born Chinese, but I knew that it applied to me, a child of parents who had immigrated to the US from Taiwan. To me, growing up in a predominantly non-Asian environment, it meant that I was one of two Chinese kids in my elementary school. It meant having to explain a lot of American cultural touchstones to my parents (Easter baskets, Christmas trees, birthday presents/parties).
Looking back, it meant a lot of uncertainty for me. Uncertainty about who I was, and whether I should be proud of the culture of my parents, or if I should be adapting as much to the culture I was growing up in. In retrospect, I wish I had made more of an effort to embrace my Chinese heritage. My grasp of verbal Chinese and Taiwanese is pretty dismal, and don’t even ask me to read or write anything. Most of what I know about my family history, and indeed Chinese/Taiwanese history, is from fairly late in life, pulling what I can from my parents. Little of my Chinese culture is truly ingrained in me, and that is painful at times.
When Disney announced the American Born Chinese series I was excited to see it. I had read the comic book, and I wanted to see how they would bring this to life. But it had also been years since I’d read the comic by Gene Luen Yang. After watching the first few episodes, I downloaded the graphic novel and read it through in one go.
So, this comic was painful to read. Because it cut so close to the bone. Jin Wang just wants to fit in, even though he clearly does not fit in with the other kids in his school. His Chinese heritage is a source of shame and embarrassment to him, and he tries to distance himself from it as much as possible.
Jin’s story is told parallel to a story about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and how he learned to accept his true identity to take the first step towards enlightenment.
It’s great. It really is. It was painful, but that’s on me, and my childhood. But really, you should read it.
Then Disney announced a series based on the graphic novel, and the initial teasers looked amazing. It looked like they were going to amp up the fantasy aspect of the story, and really bring the myth of the Monkey King more fully into the story. Sounded great.
So, I’m just over half way into this, so take that into consideration. I will try to do the rest of this without spoilers, but just in case:
** possible spoilers **
The first episode was great. So much cringe-worthy embarrassment. It really channeled the book, and I got all the same vibes. Jin just wants to fit in. Here he really wants to make this school year a new start, despite what his mother and father try to push on him. He wants to join the soccer team, he wants to put comics and manga behind him, and he’s crushing on a girl in his biology class.
Of course, everything goes off the rails when he’s saddled with the new kid in school, Sun Wei-Chen, because of course, the school administrators would have the new kid from Taiwan shadow the only other Chinese kid in school. “You have so much in common!”
See? This is the kind of cringe-inducing micro-aggression I’m talking about here. Add in the Jim vs Jin introductions, too! Poor Jin, he’s just trying to fit in, not make waves. He just wants to be a normal kid. I seriously had some triggering flashbacks to elementary school while watching the first episode.
And, the Monkey King element was done well. Wei-Chen is Sun Wukong’s son, and has gotten himself into trouble, stealing his father’s Iron Staff, and running off to earth. Great effects and stunt work, having all the dialog in Chinese was great, it all seemed like it was going to be a great mashup of the original graphic novel and an extra helping of Monkey King madness.
Honestly, I don’t know what this show is trying to do. There is so much happening, and almost none of it pans out in a way that keeps the story moving. Clearly, Jin and Wei-Chen are supposed to be the A-line story, but they spend so much of their time apart that every time they get together it’s because something has forced them to.
So. Many. B-lines.
Jin’s parents are on rocky ground and his dad is being passed up at work for a promotion. Jin faces bullying at school, from other boys who he tries to befriend. Jin wants to hang with a buddy Anuj, who is upset that Jin didn’t defend him when Jin’s soccer friends mocked Anuj for his cosplay. Jin wants to ask Amelia out on a date, but Wei-Chen keeps inadvertently interfering. The bullying incident leads the school culture club to try to capitalize on Jin’s situation, and use him as a catalyst for change.
And all this is on top of mythical figures coming down from heaven, searching for the Monkey King’s wayward son.
I’m going to stick it out, because I’m too far in to not see it through. But so far, this series has been a waste of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Kwan, and Stephanie Hsu. Especially Kwan, considering his role in the first four episodes. If he doesn’t get some kind of really awesome payoff before the ending, I’m going to be pissed. (IYKYK)
And one more thing. I don’t get the setting. It’s an American high school, possibly southern California? By the tech in the show, it’s very modern, like the past ten years. But I find it hard to believe that a high school in southern California would have such casual racism towards Asians, or so few Asians as part of the population, or even such small class sizes. (Jin’s biology class has twelve students!)
Maybe it’s just my personal experience, but I really do place the kind of struggle to fit in in the 70s and 80s. Maybe Disney just didn’t want to make a period piece out of the show.
(And just having to say that sentence is an all-new self-inflicted wound.)
American Born Chinese on Disney+, 5/10 (so far), will finish, but with tempered expectations.