Saturday, July 25, 2015

"American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang

Another graphic novel hits the list: "American Born Chinese" is a fabulous, award-winning story by Gene Luen Yang that follows three seemingly unconnected stories that, in the end, all intertwine to tell a bigger, unified story. The novel follows the Monkey King, Jin Wang, and a stereotypical looking Chinese caricature named Chin-Kee and his cousin Danny. All of the story lines cause the reader to consider the concept of accepting yourself as you are, and not trying to be something you are not. I adore this book, and I know I haven't done it justice... Alas...

Me and "American Born Chinese" (BTW, I love this cover.)


This book is a great piece to share with grades 6-12. I think the interest level would peak at ninth grade, but older kids may find it interesting if they are new to the genre of graphic novel. Here are a few ideas to steal for your lessons...

1. Pop Culture Research on Racism and/or Stereotyping: 
The story of Chin-Kee and Danny reads like a television program where Chin-Kee plays the stereotypical Chinese character often found in old movies--think of him as, you know, Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" but Chinese and not Japanese.  The portrayal of characters like this in the novel and in the film brings an interesting research question to mind: How are different people groups portrayed on television and film?

Students in middle school up to high school seem to consume more Netflix, TV shows, and movies than any other demographic, so this research question will appeal to their interests. Have the students team up in groups of three and, in their groups, select a people group to explore (e.g. Chinese men, Japanese women, white women, gray haired white men, black men, etc.). Then have each person in the group take one aspect of pop culture to research as to how this people group is shown in media. Here is what each student in the group would do:

1- Get a list the current top 10 movies. For each of the major blockbusters, have one student see where their team's people group is shown. What are their jobs in the film? What are their roles in the storyline? Are they portrayed negatively or positively? Is it fair?

2- Get a list of the top 10 TV series. For each show, have a student look to see if there are any individuals from their team's people group? If so, what do they do, say, and act like? If not, to what numbered show do you need to get to in order to find someone from your people group? What are their jobs in the shows? What are their roles in the storyline? Are they portrayed negatively or positively? Is it fair?

3- Get three magazines and flip through their pages. What ads, stories, or products do you see that depict your team's people group? What kinds of activities are they engaged in if any? If there are none, why do you suppose they are not featured? What are their jobs in the magazine's pages? Are they portrayed negatively or positively? Is it fair?

Students research on their own then bring the work together in teams for discussion. From their initial research, students can then analyze the data in a team. What do the data say about that particular people group? Does it seem racist, stereotypical, balanced? Have students analyze and then come to a conclusion. Results can be shared in a presentation, research paper, or poster display.

A scene with the section about "The Monkey King".
2. Symbolism Exploration:

In this book, the Transformer is an obvious symbol of Jin Wang's internal struggle to want to change into another creation. Have students think about other typical struggles other teens/tweens face: knowing yourself, pretending to be something you're not, wanting to fit in, not telling the truth, feeling like a kid but wanting to be an adult, racist thoughts, sexist thoughts toward the opposite gender, anger towards self, anger towards authority, apathy... the list goes on.

Have students select a visual to represent that struggle. They can print a picture from Google Images, find one in a magazine, or create it themselves.  For instance, if a student selects the struggle of feeling ugly, he may select the image of a broken mirror. On a separate piece of paper, the student describes the feeling in a short paragraph. 

THIS IS NOT A TIME TO AIR OUT ALL OF THE KIDS' INNER STRUGGLES; it is meant to be a time to consider symbols. Many kids will write what they actually feel, so this can be a very touchy exercise; however, if handled with care, compassion, and teacher-awareness, this can be a fabulous activity.

3. Conformity Discussion:

This book deals with the pressures of conformity. Have students spend a passing period, break, recess, or lunch looking at their peers. What trends can they see that all groups of people, no matter their race or ethnicity, partake? Have students consider they style of clothing, haircuts, language patterns, and the like. After they gather their research, have a class discussion on conformity and why we strive to be "one with the group". 

4. Myths Across Cultures: 

One of my personal favorite aspects of this book is the inclusion of the Monkey King myth. I happen to be a big lover of mythology, and this book lends itself to a great discussion of myths around the world. One of my mentors, Vickie Gill, gave me this lesson on researching myths (similar to the stereotype/racism research mentioned above).

Have students join together in teams of three or four. As a team they select a question that myth typically answers. In this book, one of the many questions that is answered is: Can you change who you are? Some of the questions students might try to tackle in this project include:

Where do we come from?
How can you please the gods?
What is the role of men/women in society?
Can the gods be deposed?
What happens after we die?

Then, as individuals they each choose a culture from around the world: Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Chumash, Celtic, Hindu, etc. Each member should have a different culture, but they will share the one question.

Now students go find the answer to that question. I have my students look for stories, not overt "Yahoo Answers". I want them to spend time reading myth from other parts of the world to discover the answers. After looking at the library, going online, and even watching some videos, students begin to get a sense of that culture's mythology.

For instance, if a student read the myth of Orpheus, he would understand where the Greeks believed they went in the afterlife. If another student read the myth of Valhalla or Helheim, she might understand the differing ideas on the afterlife for Norse mythology. And still another student might read the myth of Anubis and Osiris to learn what the Egyptians believed. Together, these three students can have a well-researched and thoughtful discussions about the similarities and differences between these myths and people groups.  

5. Discussions/Writing Prompts:

Use these prompts to talk about the book with your kids, or you can have them write their responses. Remember, picture books don't need to stop in second grade!

1. Is this book's depiction of Chinese people racist or inappropriate? Why or why not?
2. What is the meaning of the title "American Born Chinese"?
3. How is our school similar to the ones depicted in this book?
4. How did Jin Wang's choices change Wei-Chen?
5. From what character faults does Jin Wang suffer? Does he ever overcome them? If so, when and where? If not, why not?

I hope you enjoy this excellent graphic novel "American Born Chinese"... And I hope you and your classes are challenged to think about the world in a new way.

Happy learning!

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