American Born Chinese is very different from the book, and that’s great

American born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, is an almost universally acclaimed, surrealistic graphic novel about a Chinese-American boy deeply ashamed to be Chinese. So it’s not surprising if fans – myself included – were a bit skeptical of trailers for American born Chinesethe TV show on Disney Plus.

Footage from the show features action sequences and a battle between the mortal world and heaven, which seem to play on the huge success of Everything Everywhere Everything at once (to be fair, the show do borrow almost the entire cast of the Best Picture winner). It’s a choice separate from the story of Jin Wang, a high school student who still has a lot to learn about himself and the racist discomfort he’s both trapped by and clinging to. American born Chinese, the graphic novel, has elements of the fantastic, but they’re… actually, what they are is kind of complicated. They are not a kung fu action fight for the fate of the world, that’s for sure.

But after watching a few episodes of American born Chinese, the TV show, ahead of its debut, I can confidently say there’s more to the adaptation than meets the eye. And what I’ve seen so far is more than enough to get excited about.

Image: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

The most “challenging” aspect of American born Chinese, the graphic novel, is also what has made it so thought-provoking. It’s not simply the story of Jin Wang, a high school student, who ends up breaking up with his best friend to gain in-group status with the white kids. Yang’s graphic novel simultaneously presents two other stories: one about the early life of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and a fictionalized American sitcom about a white American teenager and his embarrassing cousin, Chin-Kee, an expansive collection of the most pernicious Western stereotypes of Chinese men.

None of these stories seem to have anything to do with each other until the final scenes of the book; even then, it’s never quite clear whether the Monkey King or the sitcom’s story is as “real” as Jin Wang. The book works because each of the stories reflects the themes of dreaming an identity transformation demanded by outside biases, and it works regardless of what was really real.

But Yang’s experiments with the diegesis—with different on-page drawing and layout styles, and clear chapter breaks—don’t translate one-on-one to TV aimed at all ages. The “reality” of live-action television cannot replicate the hyper-reality of cartoons. At the same time, live action sharpens a lot of heavy content to painfully clear resolution. In the graphic novel, Yang’s depiction of Cousin Chin-Kee is awkward (as it should be!). In live action, the buck-toothed, pidgin-speaking, queue-carrying stand-in for racism targeting Chinese Americans would be unbearable.

Fortunately, the first few episodes of American born Chinese shows a remarkable understanding of how to preserve the spirit of a story while retrofitting it for a different medium and modern audience of young viewers. No, the show doesn’t maintain the “authenticity” ambiguity that the book does – Jin eventually finds out that his new friend Wei-Chen is the Monkey King’s runaway son, though it takes a few episodes for that shoe to drop for him .

But there is still a cousin Chin-Kee in the show updated for the sitcom language of Friendsera television. In a frankly brilliant bit of metatextuality, Ke Huy Quan plays an actor who used to play a broad Asian character in a 90s sitcom who takes on new relevance with The Youth after his pratfalls become a TikTok meme.

Ke Huy Quan in American born Chinese.  He holds a book in his hand and appears to be teaching a class.

Image: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

‘Isn’t that something like that problematicone teen asks the other as they laugh at yet another video of his accented catchphrase, “What could happen?” – just before asking Jin, the Asian person who happens to be next to them, to tell them that it’s okay to laugh Jin doesn’t object, not necessarily because he doesn’t want to, but because he goes out of his way to make everyone think he’s a fun and laid-back guy to hang out with.

It’s a scene that could easily have played into the book, had it not been published in 2006, when social media and the widespread use of “problematic” were unthinkable. Here in 2023, they are essential features of how race and racism are communicated in the life of an American teenager – and American born Chinese is smart enough to recognize it.

A few episodes in, American born Chinese all feels smart, modern, serious and funny. Much of this is provided by the considerable talents of young actors Ben Wang and Jim Liu (as our protagonists Jin and Wei-Chen respectively). And that could be all it needs to be as good as the source material. When an audience comes Everything Everywhere Everything at once but stick around for a coming-of-age story as sharp as American born Chinesethe book, then, hey – that’s the art of customization at its best.