About ten days ago I was assisting in a summer camp classroom. We had just returned from a long field trip in the heat. Students, slumped and drained from the day’s excursion, were sitting down for snack. Parents began to arrive, a look of relief flooding their faces as they entered the air conditioning. Every inch of me wanted to sit-down, eat a banana and some crackers with the kids, but my job was to smile and talk to arriving parents. Catching myself mid-sigh, my eyes zeroed in on a yellow book in one of my first graders hands. I knew it right away. Gene Yang’s, American Born Chinese.
I leapt! Performing a double layout with a half twist, clear-over a couple of second graders, perfect landing next to the 6 yr old. Crowd goes wild. Okay, that was probably exaggerated. But the rest is true, honest. The volume of my voice escalated as I rapidly told the little girl, “Can you believe it, I know the author!” I felt like I should have been doing the superman pose as I exclaimed this important information. To the girl’s stoic father, I explained that Gene Yang was one of my facility members at the MFA program I was attending. With wide arm movements I went on about the book, telling the girl and her father that is was fantastic. Pointer finger pushing into the air. I felt myself puff up in preparation to spew my pride and excitement to this small family, but was quickly pulled away by another child and her missing what-ever. From afar, I watched as the father took the book from the girls hand and open it. His solid expression changed slightly, eyes turning, lips thinning. I wondered what he was looking at, what he was thinking?
For the next couple of days, every time I worked with the girl, I wanted to ask about this Young Adult Graphic Novel she was reading. So when I was walking the class back from P.E. I took my chance to bombard her with questions. Had she read the book? “Sure,” she had said, “I've read it a bunch of times.”
I asked what she had thought of the story, what it meant to her? The 6yr old thought for a moment, and explained that it was about a monkey king and how his son was this kid on earth who wasn't doing so good. “What was the lesson?” I inquired. She shrugged. It was a big question for a 1st grader.
What was American Born Chinese about? Spoiler alert! The novel is made up of three stories rolled into one. The monkey king wants to be respected and so changes himself to be less monkey. When stuck under a mountain he is told that he would be free if he would return to his original form. He refuses, and stays for 500 years. We flash to a story of a boy whose parents are from China but is born in America. He isn't accepted at school and he, too, wants to change himself in order to fit in. Do you see the trend? In the end the monkey king and the boy are able to accept that their cultural heritage is a part of who they are.
Gene has said that his Chinese heritage informs the way he is American, hence the title. In a video interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYCZqt5WSOM, from America.gov, he said that his struggle with cultural heritage was an important part of his life experiences, his identity, and it was something he wanted to workout on paper. This story of acceptance was apart of him and therefore an important story for him to tell.
So was this message lost to my first grader? I don't think so. She might not have the language to express her understanding but she has the experiences. I see it in the way she is always hip-to-hip with the other Chinese-American girl in the classroom. Though the entire class plays together, those two girls have a special bond. In science class, every year the teacher leads a unit on DNA. The ages he teaches range from 3 to 11 year olds. The younger group might not fully understand what DNA is, but that nugget of knowledge will file away the language for later understanding. So even though the message of American Born Chinese isn't fully understood by my 6yr old friend, the seeds of love-thy-self have been planted in her mind through this story. When she reads it again, possibly later in life, it will mean so much more to her.
Writing is more than the need to put what’s in my mind onto a page because if I don't my soul will shrivel. It's about being true to the people who will read your material, to possibly help them on their own journey. How many times have I drawn strength from characters? Or realized some grand lesson I had never considered because of a book? I really grew to understand this concept during my first residency this past July. Each faculty member spoke on this. Whether it was in lecture or during a tribute to Ellen Levine who took on so many causes in her work and did so beautifully. Our mentors challenged us to be honest in our writing, to find meaning, and to be grounded in what was important. In the end of American Born Chinese, Gene Yang allowed his readers to catch on to his message without right out telling it. He trusted his readers, just as they trusted him...My next step is deciding what all this means for me.