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‘American Born Chinese’ review: Action-comedy tackles cultural assimilation and racism

By May 28, 2023No Comments5 min read
A Chinese-American teenager played by Ben Wang stands on a cafeteria table with a fist raised in the air. Other students stand on the floor around him.

Three episodes were screened for this review of American Born Chinese.

In the premiere episode of American Born Chinese, Jin (the affable Ben Wang), our highly insecure protagonist, shops for back-to-school clothes with his supportive mother, Christine (Yeo Yann Yann,) at a department store in California. As Jin’s mother searches for suitable clothes for her son, the 10th grader spots an $80 denim jacket on the rack. Like many image-conscious teens, Jin gravitates to the pricey but basic outerwear because he wants to look like the tall, handsome white male model in the display ad nearby. Unfortunately for Jin, Christine rejects his idea, even laughs at the mere thought of buying said jacket, and suggests he find something more affordable.

This scene demonstrates how Jin struggles with his identity as a second-generation Asian American. He desperately wants to fit in with his white classmates, particularly his soccer mates, and believes the jacket is his ticket to acceptance. However, Jin does not realize that the best way to navigate a majority-white world is to find people who will empower him to embrace his heritage. Fortunately for Jin, a series of incidents with the son of a Chinese mythological figure forces him to question who he wants to be. With its thoughtful examination of microaggressions and cultural assimilation toward the Asian American community alongside its bombastic homage to Hong Kong martial arts films, American Born Chinese successfully adapts a beloved graphic novel for the small screen.

American Born Chinese begins with Jin’s first few days at Sierra Mona High School as he tries out for the JV soccer team and attempts to gain the attention of his longtime crush, Amelia (Sydney Taylor). Though Jin slowly makes significant strides with his classmates, his life turns upside down when his high school principal recruits him to help a new exchange student named Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) adjust to the chaotic world of a traditional American high school. In some ways, Jin learns more about overcoming obstacles as a teenager from Wei-Chen than vice versa. Unlike Jin, Wei-Chen is confident, wholly reckless, and, most notably, the son of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu).

Due to an impending civil war in the heavens, Wei-Chen needs Jin to help him find a magical scroll to prevent a civil war between the ancient gods. Unfortunately for the teens, The Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) will do everything possible to achieve world domination. Luckily, they have the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), to assist them with their epic journey. Elsewhere, Jin’s parents Christine and Simon (Chin Han,) find the courage to achieve their dreams for the first time in their adult lives.

For a young adult action comedy, American Born Chinese tackles microaggressions and overt racism against the Asian American community with thoughtfulness and wit. The series does this with the protagonist’s complicated relationship with the show within a show, “Beyond Repair.” In Jin’s world, the fictional 90s sitcom—think Home Improvement meets Full House—gains newfound popularity thanks to a streaming service in the vein of Netflix (nice one, Disney+). As with many sitcoms of yore, this series features several problematic characters, including a stereotypical Asian man named Freddy (the perfectly cast Ke Huy Quan) whose catchphrase is, “What could go, Wong?” Like Apu from the Simpsons, this racist character gives Jin’s peers the license to treat him like a joke.

To illustrate, when Jin storms off after a heated confrontation with Wei-Chen in Episode 1, he immediately crashes into a classroom door that leads him straight into a trophy case. Sadly, none of Jin’s classmates assists him except for Wei-Chen. To make matters worse, one of Jin’s soccer mates creates an online meme that compares the young man to the accident-prone Freddy from “Beyond Repair.” Yet, instead of confronting the student-athlete with Culture Club president Suzy in Episode 2’s “A Monkey on a Quest,” Jin brushes the incident aside and even defends the white student in the school’s cafeteria. This storyline works as it shows Jin’s desire to conform trumps his uneasiness towards his mate’s insensitive behavior.

Although American Born Chinese focuses on serious issues, it also has suspenseful moments that will entertain viewers. With legendary stunt coordinator and director Peng Zheng leading the choreography, the television series brilliantly draws from Hong Kong martial arts films with its gravity-defying wirework, thrilling camera movements, and solid visual effects. Take Guanyin’s scrimmage against The Bull Demon in Episode 3’s “Rockstar Status,” for example. In the scene, The Goddess of Mercy uses household items from her new apartment to evade and distract her opponent, including a red cloth that doubles as a bullfighter’s cape. Like her previous works, such as Supercop and Master Z: IP Man Legacy, Yeoh’s ferocious but graceful fighting style makes it extremely difficult for anyone to turn their eyes away from the screen.

Some viewers may believe that American Born Chinese does not do enough to address the racism and violent attacks Asian Americans and first-generation immigrants face in their communities. However, this series is an ideal starting point for young adults to learn what it is like for a marginalized person like Jin to exist in a predominately white society. The action comedy may not get through to adults who think it is okay to joke about folks who do not look or sound like them. Still, the television series can potentially start a meaningful conversation among teens.

All episodes for American Born Chinese are now available on Disney+

Feature image courtesy of Carlos Lopez-Calleja

  • 'American Born Chinese' - 9/10
Phylecia Miller

Phylecia Miller is a quirky Black freelance writer and creator of the blog, Hi, Phylecia. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, she resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her lovely husband and lazy tuxedo cat. Her professional experiences include working for Rotten Tomatoes and Film Independent. When she is not agonizing over her first sentence, Phylecia takes long scenic walks at Stanley Park and the VanDusen Botanical Garden. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @hiphylecia.

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