On -isms: A Real World Anecdote

By | Thursday, October 22, 2015 Leave a Comment
At my day job, my employer sponsors a number of "affinity groups" within the company. They're basically a series of semi-formal organizations centered around historically marginalized people. There are ones for women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc. The idea is to both provide and encourage support for individuals who might normally feel othered in the business world. Most of these groups have been around for as long as I've been with the company, and they always seem to be well received and appreciated by the people in the groups.

American Born Chinese
One of the groups is for Asian-Americans. And I happen to work with and sit just a few cubicles away from the local chapter leader. For the past couple weeks, I've seen some other Asian-American co-workers swing by to chat with her, and I noticed more than a few of them carrying around a copy of Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese. Yesterday, one of them mentioned to me that it was kind of a book club thing in this affinity group, where they all read the same book and got together to discuss it.

If you haven't read the book, here's how I summarized the plot when I first reviewed it:
American Born Chinese is Yang providing an at least somewhat fictionalized account of his childhood in America and trying to deal with a sort of dual identity -- trying to be a "typical" American child, while often being excluded because of his Asian-ness. There are three stories running throughout the book: the relatively straight-forward tale of his growing up, the adventures of the Monkey King, and a bad sit-com featuring an every-bad-Asian-stereotype character in a modern American high school. While the stories are quite disparate at first, Yang melds them together quite wonderfully towards the end as one fo the narrative pay-offs.
Now, as soon as the topic of the book came up in my conversation yesterday, I noted that I had read it a few years earlier and thought it was quite good. This co-worker seemed a little surprised for a second (he's fairly new and obviously doesn't know about my interest in comics yet) but quickly launched into how readily he identified with the story. His mother was Filipino and his father's ancestors were of German descent, so he was all too familiar with the notion of being torn between two racial identities growing up. He was excited to see how someone was able to not only put down the experience on paper, but in such an accessible form. It was precisely the type of thing he didn't even know he was looking for several decades earlier when he was still growing up.

And THAT! That right there is precisely why we need more diversity in comics. Because there are people out there trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in to society, and they frequently don't grow up with enough connections to see that they're not the only ones going through that. But when someone puts that down as words and art, that means that there's not only another person out there who's experiencing that, but there's enough people who've also experienced it to form an audience for the work! These types of works are beacons telling people, "You are not alone!"

American Born Chinese is fantastic, but it's also only one book and it may not resonate with each and every American of Chinese descent. And that's why we need more representation. More people telling their stories, so that everyone has a chance to see themselves and feel validated. That's why it's worth it to keep prodding publishers to get them to tell more stories that aren't just more Aryan men-as-gods in spandex.
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