Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stereotypes in Comics

This week I read American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. This novel is very interesting because it both involves the author's first hand account of constantly being judged for his Asian heritage as a child in a very realistic way while also dealing with some of the self hatred that comes along with years of being criticized for the way he looks and speaks with a character that is a very blatant racist Chinese stereotype. The novel was told in three separate stories that all converge at the end, but my favorite of the three was easily the autobiographical coming of age segments. Jin grows up constantly feeling like an outcast because of the cultural disconnect he has with his peers. His peers and teachers instantly dismiss him because of his race and his accent. When a person is being bullied, normally authority figures are the most obvious allies in the situation, but Jin shows on his first day of elementary school that this isn’t the case. His teacher instantly makes assumptions about him by mispronouncing his name and assuming he’s from China without any real care if she’s correct or not. To her Jin is just another Chinese student in her class. And that’s the main point the author is tries to drive home with the story of his childhood: That most people are willing to rely on stereotypes to explain others who are different from them because it’s much easier than trying to get to know a person. All of the negativity Jin receives for being a child of immigrant parents is absorbed to the point that he is just as mean to the next Chinese student that enters his class later on in school. Because when it comes down to it, Jin just wants to fit in. He wants to be accepted just like anyone else and that’s something that most of his peers just don’t want to put an effort into doing. Even though Jin understands exactly how alienated Wei-Chen feels as a new student from another culture, he initially distances himself from him just like everyone else in class.

 The self-hatred that the author felt as a child that is built up from so many years of bullying and feeling like an outcast is all dealt with through the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” portions of the novel. This story is told in the style of a traditional American sit-com where Danny is an all American kid living in a white suburban family. But things take a turn when Danny’s embarrassing cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit! Chin-Kee is depicted as a stereotypically racist image of a Chinese person. He has yellow skin, large buckteeth, permanently closed eyes, completely broken English, and he’s always wearing traditional garb. His race is played for laughs and absolutely no one takes him seriously. This is exactly the kind of image of an Asian person that you would find in a comic from the early 20th century, especially during WWII when propaganda was made to rally people against the Japanese. The Chin-Kee character is very uncomfortable to read and the story becomes pretty heartbreaking when it’s revealed that Danny is who Jin desperately wanted to be growing up. Because of the way he looks, many people just assumed Jin was like “Chin-Kee”. If he had been born with blonde hair and blue eyes his peers would have actually tried to get to know him. Jin even tries to become more like a “Danny” when he perms his hair to look like one of the more popular Caucasian boys in his class. While Chin-Kee is a very stereotypical character, he is used for a purpose to shine a light on how people treat people from different cultures. It should make you uncomfortable because we all know it’s wrong to judge people just on race and where they are from. But even if you aren’t blatantly a bully to someone, dismissing them can be just as hurtful.

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