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Essay

ONE OF THE THREE NARRATIVES woven through American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s debut graphic novel, opens with Danny, a blond, blue-eyed teen who seems to be on the cusp of moving forward in his relationship with his longtime crush. The also blonde, blue-eyed girl is blushing just when Danny’s mom calls from the other room that his cousin Chin-Kee is on his way for a visit.

It’s no surprise that the title character of a story called “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” would dominate every panel he occupies, his bold blue and gold clothing garish against the muted earth tones of Danny’s universe. Chin-Kee is larger than life, embodying the most painful of Chinese stereotypes, with slit-eyes, buckteeth, yellow skin, and a long queue. He speaks terrible English and makes juvenile, inappropriate comments to women, reminiscent of Long Duk Dong from the film Sixteen Candles. The image is so extreme as to highlight the ridiculousness of such long-accepted stereotypes.

The reader’s impulse is to look away, but Yang does not allow it. Always in the foreground, each of his teeth about the size of other characters’ noses, Chin-Kee and all that he represents cannot be ignored.

PLATE 1. Gene Luen Yang. American Born Chinese, 2006. First Second Books. All images © Gene Luen Yang.

Yet, in the five years since I first read American Born Chinese, it is Danny who still makes my guts twist. Danny, it turns out, is a Chinese American boy so desperate to fit in with his Caucasian peers—and to win the heart of the cute Caucasian girl—that he imagines himself with light hair and light eyes, giving himself a new name and distancing himself from the few Asian friends he used to hang out with [see Plate 1].

If Danny’s mental shift of identity had been described in words alone, I could have easily dismissed it. But being confronted with the image—a two-dimensional line drawing in simple colors—of a young adult desperate to shed his physical appearance in favor of something strikingly dissimilar uncovered a truth that I had never been able to admit to myself: That’s how I feel, too.

As a Chinese American woman who grew up in a predominantly white community, I have, even as an adult, almost always been an ethnic minority in my professional and personal circles. Reading Yang’s novel, I finally understood why I keep my mental image of my own physical appearance deliberately fuzzy. It’s why I avoid looking in the mirror when I use a public restroom (aside from the unflattering glare of the fluorescent lighting). It’s why sometimes, when I’m speaking with white people, I unconsciously imagine they’re seeing a more western version of me, with longer legs, rounder eyes, and more defined cheekbones.

This feeling of being me-but-not-me is nearly impossible to capture in words, but with a few simple drawings and some deft storytelling, Gene Yang managed to convey all the hope, wistfulness, anxiety, loneliness, and sorrow that many immigrant children live with. We so want to love ourselves the way we are, but sometimes it’s easier just to try to be like everyone else.

In person, Gene Yang is like his work: warm, approachable, and accessible. His friends and colleagues admire his humor, self-effacing manner, and childlike spirit. He is humble and gracious to a fault. When I interviewed him over the phone last year, I could hear the smile in his voice and was charmed by his hearty, unrestrained laughter.

But Yang is also the keeper of unexpected wisdom. Beyond his good humor, it was his reflections on faith and identity, on what divides and brings us together as humans, that made me grateful to have met him. As Jason Jensen, Yang’s InterVarsity staff leader in college, told me, “Gene is a person of lighthearted joy mixed with deep, thoughtful faith.”

The first time I heard Yang speak, he was giving the keynote of the 2014 Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. His talk was on the question, “Is Art Selfish?” I had just left a decade-long career as a nonprofit professional to pursue writing. Transitioning from addressing urgent social challenges and serving families in need to holing myself up all day to type out words that no one might ever read felt like a betrayal of my God-given gifts and heart for justice. While I knew that pursuing writing wasn’t necessarily bad, I wasn’t particularly convinced that it was good.

That April morning, before an auditorium packed with thousands of writers, aspiring writers, teachers, ministers, and book lovers, Yang spoke of the seeming frivolity of wanting to become a graphic novelist. He had agonized over the financial risks to his wife and four young children. He felt guilty when, after finishing up his day as a high school computer science teacher, he took time away from his family to write and draw. Yang’s immigrant parents, firm advocates of stable, well-paying jobs in law, medicine, and engineering, didn’t know what to make of their son’s creative aspirations.

These competing voices and responsibilities made Yang’s path toward art uncertain and complicated. But they also forced him to confront difficult questions head-on and to work through them meticulously. By 2014, eight years after American Born Chinese debuted, Yang could clearly articulate why art mattered to him, but also why it was vital to the larger community.

He made the compelling case that art is an icon, a prayer, an act of service. Like religious traditions, art binds a community together through stories and helps us understand who we are and our purpose in being here. Consider the gorgeous stained-glass windows in cathedrals or the centuries-old icons, paintings, and sculptures inspired by scripture that continue to captivate us today. The fourteen Stations of the Cross, according to Yang, are not unlike the panels of a comic strip.

I hung on his every word, rapt. Here was someone saying exactly what I needed to hear—and he looked like me and came from a similar background. He had wrestled with the same familial and cultural expectations of achievement, the same Christian guilt around service and self-sacrifice (and perhaps more so, as he is Catholic while I am Protestant). He knew that becoming an artist wasn’t simply a matter of following his heart or his passions, as many an American life coach or guidance counselor might advise. There were practical considerations, familial obligations, even moral questions to contemplate. After having peered through all these lenses and filters, Yang could still confidently say that his calling as an artist was sacred, a choice that honored God and others.

PLATE 2. Gene Luen Yang. Boxers, 2013. First Second Books.

Since hearing him, I have never looked at my desire to be a writer in the same way. The shame and doubt didn’t fully dissipate, but they shrank, replaced by a nascent assurance that God could work as much through my words as through my acts of service.

That same day, as I rushed to the campus bookstore to buy a copy of American Born Chinese, I found myself rethinking comics and graphic novels. I had assumed they inhabited the world of socially awkward teenage boys who needed an entertaining escape. In Yang’s hands, what I’d seen as a niche form of storytelling was elevated to a conduit for universal truth.

Graphic novels and comics are, in some ways, the ideal medium for caricature. But in his rising career, Yang has, time and time again, managed to create multi-layered narratives populated by complex characters who speak deeply to the human condition. According to poet and editor Hannah Faith Notess, this places Yang in a category all his own. “He’s taking an art form that is not viewed as high culture but bringing depth and sensitivity to it,” she explains. In American Born Chinese, for example, Yang’s “style is simple, with very clean lines. There’s not a lot of texture and shading, but at the same time it’s pretty expressive in terms of the character’s faces, and of the drifting between the spiritual world and the real world.”

Yang also moves easily between traditionally eastern and western narratives, compelling readers to reconsider the meaning of each. In American Born Chinese, a well-known Chinese myth about the Monkey King—which includes battles with Buddha and other deities, as well as a journey to the West to atone for his offenses—becomes a new lens through which Yang reveals God’s grace and ultimate redemption of mankind.

Given all this, it’s unsurprising that the San Francisco Bay Area native has been tearing down walls for Asian American artists and the graphic novel genre since the arrival of American Born Chinese. It was the first graphic novel named as a National Book Award finalist, and was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature. Yang’s next major work, the 2013 two-volume Boxers & Saints, received even more acclaim, including another National Book Award nomination and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. In 2016, he was the first graphic novelist named an Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress and received a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant. In addition to more than a dozen other graphic novels, he’s written for The Last Airbender comic book series and is the writer of the New Super-Man comic series, featuring a Chinese superhero who lives in Shanghai.

Yang’s way was paved by earlier artists who first departed from the shorter, mostly fantasy-based comic books that dominated the mid-twentieth century. In 1978, Will Eisner published what is considered the first mainstream graphic novel, a collection of four short stories about residents of a poor Jewish New York neighborhood called A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Art Spiegelman’s heart-wrenching graphic novel Maus, which chronicles his father’s experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust, brought the genre even greater recognition and legitimacy when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Since then, growing numbers of artists have embraced the form, captivated by the challenge of telling rich, compelling stories—both fiction and nonfiction—through text and drawings. The democratization of book publishing and distribution at the turn of the twenty-first century has also helped, allowing artists like Yang to more easily reach and expand their audiences.

As his list of accolades grows, there are no signs that Yang has changed much: he’s still a down-to-earth, geeky, Jesus-loving Chinese American guy from an immigrant family. The fingerprints of his personal story are all over his work, from the predominantly Asian characters to the wrestling with questions of identity, belonging, calling, redemption, and spirituality. (One of the characters in American Born Chinese is named Jin Wang, a common mispronunciation of Yang’s own name.)

I can count the number of graphic novels I have read on my two hands, and the majority of those are Yang’s. I love his books not because they feature themes and characters strongly influenced by his Chinese heritage, but because he has found a way to make the Chinese and Chinese American experiences, with all their uniqueness and intricacies, universal.

Yang is able to achieve this in large part because his characters—unlike his straightforward illustrations—are unquestionably three-dimensional. With a slight curve of the mouth or brows, a subtle narrowing or widening of the eyes, Yang is able to demonstrate emotions deeply rooted in how his characters see themselves and the world around them: arrogance, frustration, uncertainty, hope, and fear. In all his stories, including the New Super-Man, the protagonists are admirable and fallible, their choices both understandable and frustrating, the values they live by multi-faceted and contradictory. There are no rose-colored glasses in Yang’s universe, not even for superheroes.

Mark Siegel, Yang’s longtime editor at First Second Books, believes that his work packs so much punch precisely because Yang does not feel the need to resolve every conflict or to present a well-packaged, prescriptive message at the end of the story. He wades eagerly into the full mess of human emotion and experience and is content to linger there, leading his readers to far more questions than answers. “He’s not guarding himself against contradictions,” explains Siegel. “There is a meditation that runs through his work in a way that ends up being much more potent and deep and resonant. It communicates with you on a much deeper level than someone bashing you over the head with a message.”

This approach is a bit different from typical Christian fiction, especially that written for young people. “Christian-themed fiction for kids and teens can sometimes feel like after-school specials,” Grace Hwang Lynch, creator of the blog HapaMama, told me. “The protagonists are usually white and there’s a clear-cut moral at the end. Yang’s stories often don’t have happy or tidy endings.”

When I spoke with Yang, he was forthright about not wanting to tell his readers that Christianity is the answer to everything. “I don’t think I’m trying to convince anyone in my work,” he told me. He does, however, want to leave his readers with evocative questions. “I think that regardless of whether you consider yourself religious, there is always a search for meaning, and how you arrive at that meaning depends pretty heavily on how you answer certain metaphysical questions.”

For Yang, those metaphysical questions can’t be avoided—nor should they be—as we wrestle with the most basic conundrums about our identity and purpose. The questions seem to come up most easily when we engage with our own contradictions, the messiness and complexities that we can’t quite figure out for ourselves. And in that regard, being an immigrant or outsider, being strange or different, can actually be an advantage in the quest for spiritual meaning.

 

PLATE 3. Gene Luen Yang. Boxers, 2013. First Second Books.

Growing up, I spent years trying to distill my identity into one simple form, either a pseudo-assimilated American or a proud member of an ethnic minority. But when I spent three years in China, where I had even more trouble connecting to the culture than in the US, I finally understood that there would never be a place where I fit in perfectly. This made my heart ache with an insatiable longing, until a plain-speaking spiritual director challenged my notion that a perfect place, culture, or person had to exist. “Nothing is all good or all bad,” she told me. No individual was, and neither was any particular place or culture.

To truly love myself and the people around me, I had to stop expecting that any of us could fit an impossible ideal. The more realistic alternative was to accept the complexity and the contradictions within each one of us. Even better, embrace them. After all, the fact that we are all intricate characters—sometimes coherent, oftentimes not—is one of our major commonalities, regardless of background, faith, or genetic make-up. No matter our size or shape, we are all in need of grace.

Gene Luen Yang and I have inhabited similar cultural circles, but on his journey, the contradictions have drawn him toward an extraordinary cohesion, instead of the confusion that seems far more common among people of mixed cultural backgrounds. “He has a strangely coherent life,” muses Mark Siegel. Every challenge Yang has encountered, every major success he has achieved is, to Siegel, “the Gene Yang mystery unfolding a little further.”

Yang seems to fit perfectly and comfortably into who he was meant to be, outside of any particular mold or cultural expectation. Getting to this point, though, has been a bit of a journey.

Yang’s father was a Protestant Christian engineer from Taiwan, his mother a nominally Buddhist programmer from Taiwan and Hong Kong. They first met as graduate students in San Jose, California. His mom decided to convert to Catholicism after immigrating, so Yang grew up attending a Chinese Catholic church in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At school, Yang was one of only a few Asian students. His white classmates regularly ridiculed him. His faith made him an outsider among other Asian immigrants, many of whom find Christianity’s western roots incompatible with eastern traditions. In a 2013 interview, Yang recalled an acquaintance asking, “Why would someone of eastern descent become Christian? The eastern faiths have so much wisdom and beauty.” As a Catholic, Yang is an outlier even among Chinese American Christians, who are more than two-thirds Protestant.

The turning point for him came in college, when, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he suddenly found himself surrounded by Asian Americans. “I talked to my Asian American friends who were a lot wiser than me, who thought through these issues,” he told NPR in 2016. “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.”

But being a member of a robust Asian American community in college didn’t suddenly resolve Yang’s perplexity around who he was and where he belonged. He joined and then became a student leader of InterVarsity, where he was a rare Roman Catholic in a predominantly evangelical student ministry. Being in InterVarsity caused him to “question all the beliefs that I grew up with in the Catholic Church,” he explained. “It also made me question the evangelical beliefs that were swirling around me among my peers.”

Jason Jensen recalls that Yang “was conscious of the struggles between the different narratives within him and in the community: Catholic and Protestant, Chinese American, computer scientist and storyteller. He worked those struggles out as a student with humor and grace.” Yang also had a couple of deeply personal encounters with God that helped renew his faith. He dedicated his life to Christ when he had a profound experience of nature at an InterVarsity retreat. During a five-day silent retreat after college, he gained the clarity and courage to leave his engineering job and enter teaching.

Post college, Yang took his evolved faith back to the Chinese Catholic church he grew up in and found that some of the theological beliefs and liturgical practices he had adopted at UC Berkeley now put him in the minority. Even today, he and his Korean American wife attend a Korean church, meaning that Yang remains a bit of an outsider in his faith community.

For some, this outsider status might be the impetus for conflict, but Yang finds purpose in it. His graphic novels, short stories, and comic books seem to assure us that we are all outsiders in our own way. This is what empowers us and makes us special. And this helps us to connect with each other more intimately and understand one another more deeply.

“I think his characters always come, at the end, to more insight about who they are. They start as outsiders, and then they can transcend that,” explains Phil Yu, creator of the Angry Asian Man blog and an advocate for greater Asian American representation in media. “What makes you an outsider is also what makes you unique.”

Says Matt Mikalatos, a young adult book author who has known Yang for several years, “It’s clear that Gene’s ability to see more than simple black and white in human relationships has been a key part of shaping his belief that even the worst person can become the hero in the story. That’s a story that is common in traditional Chinese storytelling—as well as the Christian belief in redemption.”

This empathy and belief in redemption emerges most clearly in Yang’s ambitious Boxers & Saints. The first volume, Boxers, concerns a group of people who are easy to vilify—the violent and extremist leaders of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, which killed more than thirty thousand Chinese and western Christians—and pulls us so deeply into their stories that we have no choice but to see them as multifaceted human beings with muddled motives [see Plates 2 and 3]. Yang tenderly depicts their genuine love for their country and culture, their loyalty to one another, and their conviction that they are on the right side of history.

At the beginning of the novel, a young boy, Little Bao, is thrust from the typical landscape of Chinese peasant life—dominated by muted tans, grays, and blues—by two images that Yang deliberately gives more graphic weight: the destruction of a beloved earthenware god, painted in pleasant pastels, by a foreign missionary; and the dark red blood pouring from his father’s face after he has been unjustly beaten by western soldiers.

As a Boxer, Bao enters a far more vibrant existence in which the voices and powers of ancient Chinese gods flow through him and his comrades, their painted faces, elaborate costumes, and shining weapons a testament to their supposed invincibility. The world around them hasn’t changed, but adopting what to them is a strong and noble purpose transforms how they see themselves.

The other especially brightly colored images that catch readers’ eyes throughout Boxers? The blood—of soldiers, missionaries, Chinese converts, and any other perceived enemies—that the Boxers eagerly shed in their quest to drive out foreign powers and religion. While the depiction of the violence is muted—we see the drawn sword, then the bleeding body on the ground—Yang does not shy away from portraying their brutality. The Boxers want to preserve the best of their people and heritage, and in their fear of the western Christian threat they stop at nothing to do so. Yet with each life taken, with each pool of blood that stains their weapons and their land, they are also transformed.

In one section, Bao—with teeth clenched and brow furrowed—orders his followers to murder unarmed, unresisting missionaries and Chinese converts in a train car, sparing only the women and children. In the next scene, he has a disturbing nightmare about the men they have killed, his eyes wide and uncertain, while a Chinese god berates him for not also slaying the women and children. The following morning, the Boxers discuss cute girls they have encountered as they splash one another in a nearby river, their smiles wider and freer than they have been since the beginning of the story. Across just a few pages, we see the full range of Bao’s inner workings, his distinctively oval face changing from grim determination to fear and then mischievous joy.

The Boxers are killers who are little more than kids; they are extreme nationalists who struggle with doubt and conscience. As a reader, one can’t help but care for these characters even as their actions become increasingly horrific. We want saving grace to come to them.

“The beauty of Boxers,” Mark Siegel explains, “is that Gene puts us in the shoes of this young rebel. His worldview is filtered through these Chinese opera gods, and what we’re seeing is his world through his eyes. You enter into it, and you feel for him, and then you realize that Gene is taking you on a descent into fundamentalism and extremism.”

PLATE 4. Gene Luen Yang. Saints, 2013. First Second Books.

The second volume, Saints, on the other hand, depicts how a young girl, inauspiciously named Four-Girl (four is a homonym of death in Chinese), unwanted by her own family, finds meaning and belonging among Christian believers [see Plate 4]. Her world is even drabber than Bao’s. Her story is illustrated in such muted tones as to be almost black and white, which does not change even after she becomes a Christian. Her wide mouth persists in frowning; life remains extremely difficult for her. The only visual and emotional relief comes through Four-Girl’s regular visions of Joan of Arc, which are infused with a golden glow and offer her encouragement and hope for a higher purpose.

In one of these visions, Four-Girl watches as the archangel Michael calls Joan to battle against the English. The final two panels of the vision are filled with Joan’s and the angel’s golden radiance, as Four-Girl narrates, “At the time, I couldn’t understand a word they spoke to each other, but a look came over Joan’s face…a look I desperately wanted. Her face was utterly free of regret.” Her deepest desire, what would make her existence far more radiant, is such clarity of calling. But as we return to Four-Girl’s somber daily toil and her struggle to reconcile a foreign set of beliefs with her own, the endless shades of gray remind us that her world is steeped in deficiencies and complications.

Despite the title, neither Four-Girl, the western missionaries, nor their Chinese followers are particularly saintly. They bully and manipulate others into converting; they are opium addicts and hypocrites. At the same time, it’s clear that they genuinely believe in God and his desire to save the Chinese people—to the point that they are willing to die for their faith.

Matt Mikalatos told me that he wept when he read Boxers & Saints. “I was a missionary for a few years in Asia, and Gene perfectly captured the beauty, wonder, danger, and tragedy of the conflict of the advance of the message of Jesus in that place. The western Christians are trying to destroy Chinese culture to make way for Jesus, and the Boxers are trying to resist everything about the foreigners.”

Yang, with his rich Chinese and Catholic heritages, is uniquely qualified to explore such a convoluted history. When he began researching the Boxer Rebellion for his book, Yang had every intention of finding a hero to base the story on. Instead he found only gravely imperfect people torn between anger, fear, and misunderstanding, between terrible acts and good intentions. His portrayal of characters like Bao and Four-Girl gives a nuanced and profoundly empathetic soul to Boxers & Saints.

According to Yang, the book isn’t “about one side winning. It really is about these two points of view that are both valid, and ultimately the destruction comes out of each side not being able to see the validity of the other.” The opportunity for redemption comes when we can find something in the other’s story that gives us a deeper glimpse of God and the remarkable beings he has created us to be. But Yang leaves open the question of whether or not we are capable of grasping such opportunities.

“That’s the key to being a hero in much of Gene’s work,” reflects Mikalatos. “Learning to live in two worlds, and teaching others how to navigate that as well.” Beyond that, the novel demonstrates that we need one another, with all our differences, to wholly live into who we are. The stories of the boxers and the saints, says Mikalatos, “are only whole together, just like yours and mine.”

This is the message that Yang, in the middle of his two-year appointment as the National Ambassador for Young Adult Literature, is choosing to take across the country. His “Reading Without Walls” challenge asks young people to read three books that will stretch their minds and hearts: one about a character who doesn’t look or live like them; another about a topic they don’t know much about; and another in a format they wouldn’t typically read for fun.

Yang regularly expands his own horizons in the same way. He told me about his excruciating experience reading Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel by gay comic strip author Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. “The book broke my heart. I felt that book in my bones,” Yang said. “It grew my compassion muscle by leaps and bounds.”

According to Mark Siegel, “The platform that Gene is taking up with his ambassadorship is the same that runs through his books: We need more than ever to be able to relate, to connect as humans first, not based in our differences as a first premise. It doesn’t mean warping our beliefs. It doesn’t mean compromising our principles. But it does mean relating to other people as humans first.”

In a season when many seem determined to carve out siloes based on beliefs, political affiliations, or the tribes to which we belong, Yang’s efforts to draw us together through our differences is refreshing and prophetic. As Jesus reached out to the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and demon-possessed, and found them to be the most receptive to the Gospel, Yang, through moving and relatable stories and images, highlights the outsider, the immigrant, the socially awkward, and the misunderstood—and points to them as people with a soul-shaping desire for hope and redemption.

But, as both his life and his books illustrate, finding our way outside of the mainstream is not an easy journey. There will be plenty of bewilderment and frustration, missteps and dead ends. We all need a bit of a hero in us to persevere in our efforts to embrace and appreciate our conflicting and confounding layers, as well as our many differences. We all need to see our own shortcomings before we can truly extend grace to those around us.

These days I still occasionally feel like Danny, occupying a body that I don’t fully want to own. I still can’t completely reconcile the multiple cultures of my heritage. I’m beginning to accept the possibility that this may never happen—and that, perhaps, that’s not a bad thing. I may not be able to define exactly what it means to be a second-generation Chinese American Christian in the twenty-first century, but I can still understand who I am and how my experiences have uniquely shaped me. I can recognize others around me who are asking the same questions about who they are and their place in the world, regardless of how they look or talk or where they come from.

As Gene Yang has discovered, when we’re outside of our comfort zone, remarkable things can happen, if we allow it. Our questions become more pressing, our seeking more earnest. We listen better—to voices both earthly and divine. We see God and his relationship with us through the diverse lenses we each carry, and can use that perspective to broaden the spiritual experience of others. When we learn to extend grace to ourselves through the messiness of the journey, it becomes easier to extend grace toward our fellow pilgrims, no matter how different they may be.

 


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