Countless Asian Americans from generations past and present have faced an excruciating amount of racial predjudice and discrimination, trying to practice the cultural beliefs and virtues in which they were raised. Due to the overwhelming scrutiny and racial injustice they endured, many Asian Americans decided to discard their cultural identity and beliefs, in hopes of integrating into the commonality of society that many minorities sought to achieve. Gene Luan Yang demonstrates this idea of “foreignness” in his book American Born Chinese, as the novel follows both The Monkey King and Asian American student Jin in their struggles to accept their “foreignness” and cultural identity. A variety of themes can be analyzed throughout the novel, however, none more prominent than the theme of cultural acceptance and learning how to overcome racial prejudice and discrimination, rather than running away from one’s identity. By following the lives of the Monkey King and Jin, readers are able to analyze the cultural barriers that awaited them, while assessing the ways the two of them have succeeded in achieving cultural acceptance.
Throughout the book, Gene Luan Yang addresses the importance of cultural acceptance, specifically through the character, the Monkey King. The Monkey King encountered bigotry from his peers throughout his life, however, none were more notorious than the time he wasn’t able to get into a party exclusively for deities and kings for being a monkey. Soon after, he expressed his distaste in his appearance and cultural integrity when he later says, “This ‘Monkey King’ it speaks of no longer exists and transcended my former title. I shall now be called, The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven,” (Yang 60). Without hesitation, the monkey was willing to let go of his individuality. Because of the constant ridicule that the Monkey King faced, he began to try to become something that he wasn’t, symbolizing his displeasure of his cultural identity and wiping away who he truly is. However, when the Monkey King beared witness to the torment that Wong Lai-Tsao was facing by the demons, he decided to rid his stubbornness and accept the identity that was given to him in order to be freed from the rock and save Wong Lai-Tsao from his impending doom. The Monkey King decides to follow the disciple in his journey, realizing the importance of self acceptance when he says to Jin later in the book, “You know Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years of imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey,” (Yang 222-223). The Monkey King freeing himself from the rocks he was trapped under and saving Wong Lai-Tsao symbolizes the importance of accepting oneself fully. Being a monkey was something that the Monkey King couldn’t fully accept, and only until he realized he couldn’t change who he was no matter how hard he tried, was he able to put the burden of prejudice and discrimination behind him, grasping the idea of how great it is to stay true to one’s self.
To further demonstrate the idea of cultural acceptance, Gene Luan Yang writes about a middle school Asian-American named Jin and his struggles with cultural acceptance throughout the book. Jin becomes infuriated with his cultural self-conception after one of his classmates, Greg, tells him to not be with his crush, Amelia, due to his race. This humiliates Jin and he soon expresses his anger about himself when he tries to fit into white mainstream America, breaking his friendship with his good friend Wei-Chen in the process when he says, “You and I are nothing alike… Maybe I don’t think you’re worthy of her. Maybe I think she can do better than an F.O.B like you,” (Yang 191). By breaking the bond with his friend Wei-Chen, Jin further disintegrated his identity, foreshadowing the eventual full dissociation from his culture. This shows that Jin is not worried about anything other than fitting in with the cultural norm of being white, trying to break away from the cultural distinctiveness that makes him. He becomes ashamed of who he is, so much so that later in the book, he goes through the transformation as Danny, an white American boy. Rather than being freaked out, he wholeheartedly accepts being someone he isn’t when he says, “A new face deserved a new name. I decided to call myself, Danny,” (Yang 198). Jin exemplifies through this that he is running away from his cultural identity rather than accepting his cultural background. He tries so hard to make his fantasy a reality, trying to believe that he is something he is not rather than trying to be comfortable in his own skin. Luckily, he soon comes to the realization of how important it is to culturally tolerate who he is when he makes amends with Wei-Chen, when he says “… I guess I’m just trying to say that I’m sorry Wei-Chen,” (Yang 231). At the end of the book, Jin becomes regretful of who he became, sacrificing his soul in order to transform into something he clearly isn’t. He begins to appreciate his culture and later recognizes that he cannot run away from his cultural identity since it is an essential part of who he is. He can only change his self-perception of himself in order to get the approval he desires from his peers and the happiness he so truly desires.
The author explores various cultural themes and the idea of conformity through the perspectives of the characters. The internal battle against one’s recognition of their cultural identity becomes a main topic throughout the book. By implementing social obstacles and highlighting the characters’ analogous internal struggles, they demonstrate their vulnerabilities and willingness to conform to society’s demands. Eventually, however, Jin and the Monkey King accept their differences and realize the importance of self acceptance, signifying that cultural self-perception is an invaluable characteristic one must possess in order to find true happiness.
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