The APAHM Project 2023 Days 24-27: American Born Chinese
Film: American Born Chinese
Created By: Kelvin Yu
Where to Watch: Disney +
Why It Made The List:
The highly anticipated series based on Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel of the same name stars Asian-household names such as Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Daniel Wu, and Stephanie Hsu. With the added bonus of cameos from Jimmy O'Yang, Ronny Chieng, James Hong, Lisa Lu (Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians), and Rosalie Chiang (Turning Red) and familiar faces such as Chin Han, this fantastical series has a bit of everything for everyone while delving into the Asian American identity.
The term American Born Chinese (ABC) is nothing new. In fact, many wear it as a badge of honor. For me personally, it was an acronym that I used to separated myself from the FOBs (Fresh Off The Boat or first-generation immigrants). I did not want to be associated with these foreigners because I did not want to subject myself to potential teasing when I was a kid. I wanted my non-Asian, American classmates to treat me like I belonged. But as you get older you quickly realize that you never belonged, no matter if you were born here or not.
American Born Chinese takes this idea and expands on it across 8-episodes. The show focuses around Jin Wang (pronounced Wong) and the start of his sophomore year in high school. Jin wants to fit in with his classmates by wearing expensive clothes, being on the soccer team, and distancing himself from one of his favorite hobbies: comics, anime, manga, etc. However on the first day of school, the principal introduces him to Wei Chen, a new student who is also Chinese. The principal states they have so much in common even though the only thing she knows they have in common is their racial background. Jin is now stuck showing Wei Chen the ropes of high school America. Little does Jin know, Wei Chen is actually the son of the Monkey King in heaven and is on earth to meet his guide (Jin) and find the rumored "fourth scroll".
The episodes are packed with action, including my favorite style of characters appearing as if they can float or fly (i.e. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), drama, heart, humor, and self-identity. Definitely not giving out any plot spoilers for this one, because I think it truly deserves your viewership. The series touches on SO MANY relatable moments, so let's just begin diving into them.
Episode 1 definitely starts the show off strong. Like I stated previously, Jin just wants to fit in. But it isn't possible. Although he's not the only Asian or POC student in school, he will always stand out because he looks different. Jin is shocked when his classmate Amelia notices him and she makes a comment that he stands out. She doesn't really elaborate on this statement, but one can make the assumption that it is because he looks different than his classmates. Jin is not popular, on any sort of team, or outspoken to warrant standing out except through his appearances.
Then of course the common mispronunciation of Wang/Wong. I am glad that more and more shows are addressing this because I was definitely someone who was saying it wrong. (Just a note, there are some people who do pronounce their name Wang, so it's always good to just politely ask instead of assuming!) I am always tickled when people hesitate to say my last name because to me there is only one way you could say it. I also think people try to make it sound more Asian than it is by emphasizing certain letters. The word "jeu" in French actually means game. But for the record, my last name is a variation of Chu! So it is pronounced similarly to the more traditional spelling. Let's not elaborate on how US immigration messed up our family name and all that today, though :) Speaking of names, Jin is often called "Jim." This is something that happens in the film Columbus as well (which we discuss in the 2021 APAHM Project interview with Simon Hua). I like how Jin does not hesitate to correct his teachers and peers on how to say his name. Similar to the Fresh Off the Boat episode (S2, E20), my mother adopted an American name when she immigrated so that people would not have trouble pronouncing her Chinese name. If we can pronounce some of the unconventional names that we see today, why can we not also learn to pronounce non-English names as well? In Episode 7, Simon (Jin's dad) corrects the principal on the pronunciation of their last name as a final mic drop to his very well-said speech defending his family. Since America is such a diverse melting pot, we should be more committed to accepting that names don't have to derive from Europe for us to be American.
The series also touches on stereotypes. Let's talk about Freddy Wong, the 90's sitcom character from "Beyond Repair" played by Jamie (Quan). Freddy has an accent, a bowl cut, doesn't understand American idioms, and has a punch line "What could go Wong?" This punchline and a clip of a ceiling fan falling on Freddy resurfaces as a meme/trend on Tik Tok. Jamie is later asked to come to a reunion special of "Beyond Repair" and he asks his agent if he will have to say the line. She reminds him that things are better now in 2023 and that they might be open to changing it if the series were to be rebooted. During the reunion interview, Jamie expresses that he never got offered non-stereotyped or leading roles after the success of the show even though his white counterparts did. He left Hollywood, but continued his passion for acting through teaching drama. You can tell he is grateful for the role for giving him a job, but regrets that he helped enforce a character like Freddy. Like many Asian actors 20+ years ago, they took whatever jobs they could to put food on the table even if it meant enforcing a stereotype or being the butt end of a joke. Of course Jamie's story reminds me of Ke's own experience in Hollywood. I also thought of John Cho and his persistence to decline any stereotypical roles. In Episode 1, two girls are watching a "Beyond Repair" Tik Tok around Jin and immediately stop because they think it might offend Jin. Jin tells them that it's okay and that it's funny. However later on, Jin's classmates begin saying "What could go Wong" to him and even remix the clip with his own embarrassing moment. While it is one thing to watch the meme, it is another to mock someone of the same racial background as Freddy an act of bullying. In that same episode, Jin's principal assumes that Jin's mom is a tiger mom based on things she has read or seen. And that because she might be critical of Jin at home that he is acting out because he wants more positive, loving, and affectionate attention. She also accuses Asians of being "achievement based." While this may not sound like a bad thing (and Simon explains this to her), assuming that the Wang family is like this based on a stereotype is still wrong. This is a huge example of media influencing every day life. Because the principal saw or read about tiger moms, she made the false assumption that Jin's mom is one as well. It is so important for movies and television to steer away from stereotypes (especially for the sake of "humor') and to also help debunk stereotypes (an immediate example that comes to mind is Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle). There are other stereotypes from Jin's classmates as well throughout the show that really allows the viewers to hear just how absurd these assumptions sound.
Lastly, I want to talk about standing up. Jin does not stand up for himself or Wei Chen or Anuj when they are bullied because he does not want to bring attention to himself. He notes that Wei Chen is a "confident dude" because Wei Chen does not know what is deemed cool or uncool and therefore doesn't care what people think of him. Simon does not speak up for himself that he wants and deserves a promotion at work. He tries and fails to get in on the "boy's club" talk about football because his co-worker dominates the conversation. Wei Chen and Suzy stand up for Jin when he is mocked by the school from the "Beyond Repair" meme and Jin's mom is constantly pushing her son and husband to be more. Although Jin resists the help from his mom, Wei Chen, and Suzy, it is the video of Jamie at the reunion special that makes him realize to be himself and embrace himself (a testament of Jin's dream that everything is connected). Due to his knowledge of comics, Jin and Anuj are able to predict the outcome of the Monkey King vs. Bull Demon. When people who are in a position of power like Jamie speaks up for those who don't have a voice, it creates change. But even if you don't have fame or followers doesn't mean you don't have power. Through community and unity, change can be created as well.
Honestly, I could spend hours talking in depth about each episode, each moment that resonated with me, each detail. But what I wrote above are the things that hit me the most. This is definitely a show to watch, whether you are born here, immigrated here, Asian or not, this show is something special and definitely lived up to the hype it received before its release.
Small Business Shout Out!
Today I would like to give a shout out to Gold House. Although it isn't a commerce business, Gold House is a non-profit that supports and celebrates the AAPI community. Through resources, events, and programming such as Gold Open, they are amplifying AAPI voices and recognizing their accomplishments across all fields including media, sports, literature, music, and more (annual A100 List). I love that the provide a space to celebrate one another and our community. You can donate to Gold House here.
If You Liked This, You Might Like:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Amazon Prime
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on Disney +
The Forbidden Kingdom on HBO Max