Transformation in American-Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

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“American-Born Chinese” is a miraculous story about self-discovering guys. Linking three unrelated-seeming journeys (of the Monkey King Legend, a lonely Chinese American kid Jin Wang and an embarrassed white boy Danny) with the wax of fairy miracle, the comic book has, more than that, delivered some real details about the struggle of seeking identity among diasporas. Constantly asking such questions of who he really is and who he thirsts to be, the main character Jin Wang managed to describe the assimilating transformation of identity within an immigrant.

I was extremely impressed by the line of the old herbalist saying towards little Jin Wang when he told her he wanted to become a transformer: “It’s easy to become anything you wish, so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul”. “Noteworthy. There must be something deep and something so “yin yang” to figure out in such a mystery quote”, I thought; but then I almost forgot about it until the moment in the night after Jin Wang incidentally betrayed his Taiwanese American friend Wei-chen. The old lady once more got in his dream and repeated what she called a big secret about soul selling; and the next morning he found himself in the body of a white boy with blue eyes and blond hair, whom he was always longing for becoming so as to fit in that society. So–, he did forfeit his soul for the exchange, but how? And is it a bad thing to change into a white version of himself?

In my opinion, as a comic with educational purposes, the book aims to convey the most fundamental and motivating messages to children, so the author tries to categorize everything into the “good” and the “bad”. And obviously, nothing could be good with the behavior of forfeiting someone’s soul for any others; so people should not try to be anyone else but themselves because the trade-off is not worth it. However, the real-life situation is actually not so easy to put into such “moral lesson” that way, and our work is to figure out what the phrase “forfeit your soul” for a “transformation” really means in practical terms. To my view, it is a metaphor for assimilation, one of the 4 acculturation strategies when people join a new culture: assimilation, integration, segregation and marginalization.

Assimilation infers the approach where diasporas give up their original culture to “dip” themselves deeply in the more prevalent culture; then they cannot be distinguished from other natives in cultural terms. That was exactly what Jin Wang tried, and managed to do: after that day he was a part of American that noone can regard him as an outsider (actually, with the help of magic, the transformation was even more thorough when even the racial markers and the original Chinese name was erased). Diasporas is a special type of people who attach themselves with “ideas rather than place” (William, 2000); thus, they can choose the more preferable cultural background to develop their identity and practice. However, Jin Wang, despite living part of his childhood in Chinatown, was barely ever familiar with the Chinese culture (he even could not read the menu in Chinese), so was that magical night really regarded as a total change in identity?

Should it be considered as a transformation, or just merely a transformation of a second generation kid who is struggling to establish his own ego and collect his identity in a community of people different from him?

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