Asian-Americans have been indelibly shaped by a denigrated reality that is presented to us in movies and on television. What would it look like to turn off the TV and step into a world where our ethnic heritage is celebrated as a vital contributor to a grander vision, one that reflects the church eternal? American Born Chinese gives us a glimpse into this reality.
Coming off the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan team up again in the Disney Plus show. They bring the star power, but the focus is on relative newcomer Ben Wang as Jin Wang, a misfit Chinese-American teenager trying to make sense of his two-world reality. Gene Luen Yang, the creator and artist of the graphic novel from which the show was adapted, tells the New York Times that for Asians, “America feels like somebody else’s home.” We have a name for this dynamic. We call it being a “third-culture kid” or a “second-gen kid.” American Born Chinese creatively depicts this tension of clashing worlds in a variety of ways.
The cold open of the series resembles an old-world, kung-fu drama, featuring choreographed martial-arts scenes and a frantic chase between the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) and his rebellious son (Jimmy Liu), who has stolen his father’s magical staff. They magically shapeshift into different animals as they tear through a backdrop of waterfalls and mountain forests at breakneck speeds. The rest of the episode, however, takes the form of a coming-of-age teenage show, replete with popular kids and high-school crushes. For Jin Wang, being Asian does not help his prospects in the high-school social scene. By introducing contrasting genres within minutes of the show’s first episode, American Born Chinese embodies the clashing of two worlds.
The series reinforces this tension in its dialogue, as when Jin asks his mom (Yeo Yann Yann) if they could go water skiing as a family. His mom dismisses his request saying, “Aiya, we are not water ski people, Jin.” As the conversation shifts subjects, Jin’s mom explains that she and his father have been fighting because his father will not ask his boss for the raise that he deserves. When Jin asks why his dad will not speak up for himself, his mom replies, “Because we are not water ski people, Jin.” Translation: our world clashes with the world of America.
The most obvious tension occurs in the show-within-the-show that Jin watches: Beyond Repair, a sitcom starring Freddy Wong (Ke Huy Quan) as the clumsy, accident-prone repairman who can’t get out of his own way. Freddy Wong “hilariously” fumbles through precarious situations by asking, “What could go Wong?” (Cue canned laughter.) It’s cringe-worthy comedy, with a main punchline—a mockery of the words “wong/wrong”—that further alienates Jin, as it relies on stereotypes that dehumanize and emasculate Asian men.
American Born Chinese embodies the clashing of two worlds.
As for American Born Chinese, it remedies this tension through creative storytelling. Towards the end of the first episode, Jin befriends Wei-Chen, a new exchange student from China. Unbeknownst to Jin, Wei-Chen is the mystical son of the Monkey King from that opening kung-fu sequence. Wei-Chen has broken into Jin’s reality because he believes that Jin is the key to stopping evil forces from taking over the heavenly realms. With this new clashing of worlds, Wei-Chen brings value and affirmation into Jin’s disjointed existence. As the son of the king, Wei-Chen is proud of his heritage and bold in his convictions. He has a confidence that Jin lacks and rarely sees modeled in his own father.
Jin’s redemptive understanding of his cultural identity recalls Revelation 7, which offers a grand, affirming vision of a heavenly multitude “from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” This affirmation is only made possible by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who through his sacrificial death, broke into our world and reconciled it unto himself. Christ, therefore, urges his church to push past ethnic stereotypes and embrace a diversity of cultures as a reflection of the whole beauty of God, who created us all in his image. Through Christ, Asian-Americans believe that the vision of Revelation 7 is not only a direct product of the gospel, but also an affirmation of our value specifically as Asian-Americans.
There is a scene in Episode 5 of American Born Chinese that visually represents the new reality we have in Christ. Jin and Wei-Chen look for an ancient scholar who was banned from the heavens and sentenced to earth. They come across a Chinese strip mall called the Golden Temple, which Jin reckons is nothing special. But he is mistaken. As they discover the ancient scholar residing in the back of the Chinese restaurant, the entire marketplace is transformed into a magical realm right before their eyes.
This episode beckons us to see the “magical” value that exists in such nondescript yet culturally specific centers—places that third-culture kids might see as too run-down, too Asian, or even embarrassing. In embracing a Revelation 7 vision, however, we can see the inherent beauty of these spaces. A redeemed vision allows us to view these spaces as epicenters of our small but fiercely enduring communities. They were places where our immigrant parents made a living, sipped tea (and spilled it), shopped for their families, and made lifelong connections. Through the affirmation we have in Christ, we can now see these spaces—and our heritage—for what they are: truly magical.
All Asians have proud histories and heritages spanning thousands of years, incorporating nuances of food, geography, and rich ancestral traditions. But for many decades in North America, the complexity of our cultures has been reduced to emasculated tropes, hyper sexualization and fetishization, ridiculous language puns, and greasy food insults. American Born Chinese provides an artistic path of envisioning a Revelation 7 reality where our worlds do not clash, but are reconciled to one another in the name of Jesus Christ.