NORMAL — Children of American immigrants face daily challenges, but graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang used his experience as an American-born Chinese child to achieve harmony in life.
Yang shared his story about stereotypes, identity and channeling emotion into art with students Wednesday at University High School in Normal.
“I needed harmony in my life. As a cartoonist, comics have been a way for me to find that harmony,” said Yang, who illustrates for "Avatar: The Last Airbender" novels and DC Comics.
Yang, a former computer science teacher, said he found that path to harmony through his award-winning graphic novel, “American Born Chinese,” a story that is required reading for all U High freshmen.
His parents immigrated to America from China and Taiwan and brought with them a knack for storytelling, which they passed on to Yang.
“American Born Chinese” includes three sections, including a legendary Chinese folktale about Sun Wukong the Monkey King and a story about the child of an immigrant family and his struggles to fit in at school. The third, most controversial story is about a white American boy whose Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, comes to visit. Chin-Kee is portrayed through many Chinese stereotypes such as his appearance, accent and eating habits.
The stereotypical character is modeled after political cartoons from the 1800s when America saw an influx of Chinese immigrants. He also pulled ideas from personal childhood teasing.
“People ask if it’s OK to laugh at the Chin-Kee character. I would say 'yes.' We are a culture that uses a lot of race-based humor, but it comes in two different flavors,” said Yang.
He said the first version of raced-based humor focuses on “how preposterous the racist ideas are.”
"The other way people laugh at race-based humor is when they think it’s true. With Cousin Chin-Kee, I’m using that first point,” said Yang.
He said the line between those two laughing points is thin, but he told the high school students, “I believe your generation is much more sophisticated about it than older generations. You understand where that line is much better.”
In creating each section of the novel, Yang said he found “a measure of harmony” by experiencing and observing his emotions.
“This was me approaching the emotional realities of my childhood and observing myself go through those feelings. Some of those made points of pain in my childhood a little less painful,” he said.
He encouraged students to use art as an emotional expression and to treat others with respect, despite their differences.
Senior Abbey Collins said reading “American Born Chinese” was uncomfortable at times, due to Yang’s experiences with racism because of his heritage.
“That’s still important. Being uncomfortable plays a big part in having empathy for the other party,” said Collins.
“I’m glad he addressed social issues and being proud of his identity. That’s important for young adults,” said senior Naomi Walker.
Juniors Colin Poultney and Adam Schofield said Yang’s novel left an impression on them as freshmen.
“He shared messages of inclusion and how people can easily feel left out," said Poltney. "Hearing that come from him — someone who has experienced and accomplished the things he has — is truly cool."