Saturday, September 10, 2011

I Really Love This Book

It's been a while since I've posted, mostly because I'm in the middle of studying for preliminary exams for my PhD program at Rutgers University. This is a somewhat scary experience for me, because of the high stakes nature of the exams. But there is one part of the exam prep that I love, and that's the part that allows me to read and reread fiction. I've just finished American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, for probably the fourth time. I know I'm sort of sentimental, but I have to admit that I love this graphic novel more every time I read it.

Yang tells several parallel stories that are eventually connected, all of them dealing with the psychic wounds sustained by characters when they internalize white standards of beauty and behavior. There's way too much going on in the novel to really do it justice here, and besides, I don't want to ruin the many surprises in the story by revealing too much. I'll just comment on one of the plot lines, the story of a deity named The Monkey King, a well known figure in Chinese mythology.

After getting kicked out of a heavenly dinner party by the other gods and goddesses, The Monkey King transforms himself into The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, and insists that all monkeys in his kingdom must henceforth wear shoes. (Shoes serve as a symbol of colonization because “civilized” people wear them.) For The Monkey King, internalizing the standards of acceptance prescribed by the dominant culture (in his case, the other deities) results in seemingly unstoppable rage. He perfects the “four major disciplines of invulnerability” and in comic book fashion smashes and pounds his adversaries into submission. Finally, the other deities cry out for help from Tze-yo-tzuh, whose name means "HE WHO IS," reminiscent of the name of God given to Moses in the Bible, “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Tze-yo-tzuh subdues The Monkey King, trapping him under a pile of rocks for five hundred years. The Monkey King is finally released only when he returns to his true form and gives up his shoes - in other words, when he stops conforming to the standards of the dominant culture and instead embraces and appreciates his own origins. He reflects later about his experience, saying “I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey” (223).

If only he'd realized.  And if only the deities around him hadn't made him feel like an outsider, like they were normal and he was "other." If only they'd treated him as an equal, welcomed him to the dinner table, and extended to him the same status in the community that they, themselves, enjoyed. 

Now, if mythology about animal characters isn't your thing, don't worry. American Born Chinese has plenty of human characters.  I think that's apropos, given that it's humans, and not animals, who have the ability to reject their own kind so efficiently. 

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