Book Club / Their Conceptions of Their Own Identities

American Born ChineseAmerican Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yan


Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

American Born Chinese is a damn good comic book.

(Altho I wish it was longer and I’m not sure I like how it ends but whatever).

It looks simple – but deceptively so. I mean: yeah it looks like a kids book (and maybe kids would get a kick out of it – I don’t know): but don’t kid yourself. It’s like using a ipad or something: yeah it feels effortless and easy and direct. But it’s down to all sorts of complicated technology and design behind the screen. That’s my feeling about American Born Chinese.

There’s actually a part of me that feels bad for Gene Luen Yang because even tho it’s a book that’s had a lot of well-deserved love thrown it’s way I imagine there’s a certain contingent of comic book fans that would turn their noses up at it because it looks so glossy and sealed in. You know: the type of person that prefers their comics to be a bit more scratchy and unkempt and rough around the edges. I mean: even tho ABC gets all the way into deeply personal and autobiographical stuff – it doesn’t present itself in the same way that most autobiographic comics I’ve seen. I’m not going to name names but you know the ones I’m talking about right? The kind of comic that looks like it’s been scrawled on a dirty napkin at 2 oclock in the morning by someone half-drunk with no thumbs undergoing a series of electric shocks (…in case it’s not clear: I’m not really a fan).

Which you know: in this context is kinda ironic seeing how ABC is (among lots of other things) a comic about looking past surface appearances. But oops: maybe that’s just something that exists inside my head? (Lol – most probably yes seeing how that’s where everything exists).

Altho shoot – I wonder how we’re supposed to take that ending? Like: at the start ABC feels like it’s going to be a book about racism and cultural assimilation and prejudice and then at the end it’s more like – I don’t know. How if you’re a monkey you should accept that you’re a monkey? And (SPOILERS) don’t kiss your best friend’s girl? Which I don’t know – feels like a little bit of a de-escalation when the start of the book seems to be suggesting (to me at least) loftier and more ambitious goals – but hey you know: maybe that’s the point? And maybe it’s beyond the reach of one comic book (or one person) to fix the toxic human stew that is race relations et al.

Speaking of (*cough* PLUG PLUG PLUG) We’re doing a S.M.A.S.H. event at MCM this Sunday talking about Controversy (if you’re around you should come: 4 – 5pm Lower Platinum Suite!)

Trying to get ready for it – thinking about Controversy – got me thinking about how I guess (in the eyes of many) what a bad person I am.

Speak English

Like: there’s a part of me that wants to be “woke” and all the rest of it and make sure that minority voices are heard and championed but there’s another part of me that feels like the whole thing is a bit fake and tokenist. I mean: whoop – we’re doing ABC for the Book Club. But how much of that is just the illusion and presentation of “oh wow look at us we’re so inclusive” and etc. And you know: there’s always the potential for disconnect in how something appears and how it actually is. Like – just to be incredibly blunt and ugly about it: you can have people from minorities with shitty views and people from majorities with good ones – you know? It feels like the trick is: to try and work out between ourselves which views are shitty and which ones are good and maybe not get too reliant on the idea that you can judge someone’s opinion by the colour of their skin…

And lol yeah: full disclosure – I had a thing last week where what I was saying was repeatedly dismissed as just being “white people thinking” and well: shit – it kind of made me all conflicted like a motherfucker. Like: just to clear as always: yes of course our culture and society is hopelessly racism and sexist and homophobic and etc. And yes because of the colour of my skin and my gender and sexuality and etc I’m way more privileged than people who are born in different ways for different reasons and judged by those metrics – my life is easier and free from harassment in ways I can’t even understand or imagine. But erm – I’m doing the whole “waaah Reverse Racism!” thing because obviously obviously there’s the whole systematic unconscious racist institutional bias thing that’s basically being directed only at people who aren’t white (altho shit as always I’m going to be a little bit difficult and point out that I haven’t been lucky enough to always experience my life just as “white” because: well – growing up I was a “mixed race” kid)… But even with all of that in mind (and speaking as someone who has at several times in the past used the phrase “white people” and “straight white men” as pejoratives – so please please feel free to call me a hypocrite if you wish): I still think it’s stupid to judge someone’s opinions by the colour of their skin as to well: judging them by their opinions.

(Oh gee – I hope that’s not a step too far and I don’t get crucified on the internet).

Because well: my aim here isn’t really to be controversial (I don’t think). But you know: just speaking from my experience and throwing it out there and seeing how other people react to it.

And shoot: what I’m really hoping is that this doesn’t turn into a (collective noun*) of white guys all whining about how difficult it is to be a white guy. I mean: don’t get me wrong – I think it is difficult to a white guy. I think it’s difficult to be any type of human. It’s confusing and weird and the rules keep changing all the time. From talking to other people and reading the stuff they’ve written – it kinda seems like it’s harder to be a non-white non-guy: but unfortunately at the moment I’m stuck inside the body I first landed in so I can’t tell for sure. But then you know – maybe that’s what empathy is there for? Trying to understand other minds rather than our own – and trying to give everyone we met the benefit of the doubt.

(But ha. Maybe that’s not possible?).

I do think that maybe tho – it could be a good beginning for the next three weeks? You know – race and all the rest of it. In fact if it’s ok I’d like to ask you all a question – because from my point of view it seems like something that different people have different opinions on – and maybe if we talk about it we can all understand each other a little better: what does racism mean to you?

Oh and also: how can someone not be racist?

And for now – I’ll leave it at that.


Christine Ro

“A mayonnaise of white guys” is brilliant. Maybe “a Shawshank Redemption fan club of white guys”? “A Fight Club of white guys”? “A dinner party of white guys”? “An ultimate Frisbee of white guys”? I could go on for hours.

I think it’s dangerous to valorise someone’s opinion just because they’re non-white, or to condemn someone’s opinion just because they’re white. But it becomes more understandable when white folks feel that their beliefs about racism carry the same white as minorities’, and I’ve seen plenty of of knee-jerk defensiveness from white people in contexts like these.

I need to reread ABC, but regarding the art: It doesn’t look overly fussy or polished to me, it just looks quite precise. As for what I remember of the content, I think it’s both a universal and a specific coming-of-age story. It’s universal in the sense that all adolescents wear masks to some extent, and their conceptions of their own identities don’t necessarily match up to what the outside world sees and expects of them. And of course it’s specific with the layering of Chinese folklore and different kinds of Chinese American stories.


Has anyone read the graphic novel The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and

Theirry Robin, basis for the recent movie of the same name? It’s in English

as well as the original French, yes? And is the graph-novel a comedy too?

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

I haven’t read The Death of Stalin comic. But last night I watched Atomic Blonde (which is also based on a comic) and it was so bad I found myself involuntarily booing at several points. But hey you know – there are good films based on bad books / bad films based on good ones / and every other every possible combination you can think of…

There’s a part of me that’s a little let down that I did the “mayonnaise of white guys” joke. Because LOL it kinda defeats the point I was trying to make…

The S.M.A.S.H. panel we did last Sunday on controversy was cool. Lots of interesting points and lots of talk about the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (who it must be said LOL got quite a kicking…). It some of the chats that happened afterwards that got stuck in my head the most tho…. (and I hope that none of the following reads as a subtweet or anything: this is just me reporting back from the inside of my head – if you disagree – then please feel free to say……).

There’s this quote I saw the other day that basically sums up my thoughts: “The enemy of feminism isn’t men. It’s patriarchy, and patriarchy is not men. It is a system, and women can support the system of patriarchy just as men can support the fight for gender equality.” Although of course it’s equally true what Christine said about how it’s gonna piss people off when “when white folks feel that their beliefs about racism carry the same weight as minorities” – although shit – maybe that’s like the whole crux of the issue? The knowledge / experience thing that LOL if I remember my Sixth Form English lessons right people have been debating since the time of Chaucer (that woman who married a bath or something?).

Like: from my experience the feeling I’ve got is that as a “white guy” I run the risk of death by internet for speaking about Race and poking my ideas and beliefs into things that my privilege has protected me from. And yeah ok – I get that. That makes sense. Although instead of sitting idly by I want to add my weight to those who want to push the world to a place where it’s just and fair – you know? We all want to be the good guys.


On Sunday someone told me it doesn’t matter what I say and how I try and theorize stuff it’s not going to change reality. I can talk all I want about the definitions of racism – it’s not going to stop the racists being racist. And yeah of course. I can sip my beer and pontificate but you know: what does that really do? How does it help the world? How am I being a good guy?

And LOL yeah – I’m fully prepared to admit that maybe I think too much (but is it really possible to think too much?): but then I have an almost religious belief in the idea that it’s only by thinking through a problem / situation and getting to the point that you understand it. That’s why we have plumbers.

And like the big thing that’s been in my head recently (or LOL maybe forever) is that most of the time people aren’t that good at thinking things through properly: and that actually most of our assumptions are unquestioned and taken for granted and most of things people believe they believe because other people believe them too – and dang it for better and worse – humans are social animals and our minds are influenced by the herd…

A really good example is this thing I saw the other day about fire alarms:

One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.

A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

whats your problem

The ways that other people think and react will change how we think and react – which you know: is simultaneously scary and depressing and exciting. Because shit – if you can talk about things enough maybe you can change people’s minds? And (sorry – but this example is too good to resist) but Jeremy Corbyn can go from someone who’s dismissed as “a waste of a vote” and “unrealistic” and whatever to basically the most popular politician in the country.

And well yeah – should I say that thing again? Instead of making the case that we need more people who look right and fit the superficial standards of diversity or whatever: I’d rather there was a case being made that we give our support to people who espouse the right ideas. But LOL shit – is that too much of a tangle? Like: is anti-feminist to say that I think instead of more women I think we should have more feminists? (You tell me).

I guess – it’s still the experience / knowledge thing right? But then I guess it depends on what you’re looking for: I was going to say something about how in terms of trying to stop or prevent road safety or whatever it seems like it be better to listen to someone who studied it and has ideas of solutions like road markings or speed limits or whatever rather than just hearing the testimony of someone who’s been hit by a car. But then shit – maybe the person hit by the car has a more visceral story to tell and to quote Brexit: “people have had enough of experts” LOL

But shit look – I wrote all this stuff and haven’t even mentioned American Born Chinese. So let me try and do a little bit of that… you know – to keep up the pretense like…

I’ve been thinking alot about the trajectory of the book and how it starts off with this story about a kid experiencing racism and shit and it seems like oooh maybe this is going to be a take-down of society and there will be some sweet comeuppance and bullies will learn their lessons and justice will be restored. Because you know: even if it seems an impossible dream in our world – it’s nice to read something and pretend right? Only well as it gradually moves along – it’s focus kinda shrinks and by the end it’s just about these two friends and well shit – I don’t know what to think of that…

Like: is it just because the systematic injustice is baked into the very foundations of our society and there’s nothing an individual can do and our only hope is for collective action that always remains just out of reach? Or is just that Gene Luen Yang just wanted to share his experiences of being an ABC and that anything beyond that isn’t part of the point? The hope being if we describe the racism enough then that will solve it? (I’m skeptical for all the reasons listed above). Am I asking too much from one story? And shit: maybe it’s some Michael Jackson Man in the Mirror thing and the lesson is if you want to make that change you need to start with yourself? Individual responses to systematic problems etc.

And as for this bit. Well….

how good it is to be a monkey

It’s a bit – pat – no?

And like: I don’t know how successful a strategy it is when: you know – you’re living your life buried under a mountain of rock… (METAPHOR).

But hey whatever you think: I do think it’s all worth talking about. Because I think that’s the only way that we can understand each other – and I think it’s only by understanding each other that things will change.


Barbican Comic Forum

“On Sunday someone told me it doesn’t matter what I say and how I try and theorize stuff it’s not going to change reality.”

Do I know who said that? It sounds similar to something I might have said but there is an important part missing.

I will add it if I am, otherwise…as you were.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

Please feel free to add to it. 🙂

(Don’t want to miss the important parts)

Barbican Comic Forum

But was it something I said? If not I am not in the position to clarify 😀

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

LOL. Ok. You said it. Everyone? Listen up: Nana said the thing. It was Nana. Everything said was by – this guy here: Nana.

Happy now?

Barbican Comic Forum

Yes I’m happy now. So since I said it this is what is missing lol. Apologies for not discussing the book and rather clarifying something I was supposed to have said. Also I’m rushing out right now so it might not read clearly.

“On Sunday someone told me it doesn’t matter what I say and how I try and theorize stuff it’s not going to change reality.”

The part missing is: “it won’t change reality for the person who is experiencing the racism/sexism/homophobia.” The context was that you can debate and theorise, but if you refuse to acknowledge what the person is going through – because in some theoretical scenario it isn’t necessarily the exact definition of racism/sexism/homophobia you hold (but rather some other prejudice). And you think by taking the time to have philosophical thought experiments in order to understand both sides, the problem will go away. Then you’re being naive (possibly because you can afford to be). That same ability to stay focused on the theoretical is not a luxury that everyone has.

The analogy you made about listening to someone who has been hit by a car instead of someone who is an “expert” was interesting. I would rather say the analogy is more like listening to someone who has been hit by a car, as opposed to someone who watched someone being hit by a car. Neither of them are experts, but one might be able to describe how the incident affected their ability to work later, interact with their friends and family and even how it hurts now every time the weather gets cold (basically provide a more in depth perspective on the consequences). By all means, have road experts create laws and improve road safety. Just make sure that the people in a position to enact road safety and the “experts” have spoken to the people hit by cars in order to understand why they were hit (what made them cross without looking or distracted them if that was the case) or what they think might help them avoid being hit in future. Who knows maybe being hit by a car has given them a perspective that the designated expert may have overlooked, especially if that expert has never been hit by a car. This may sound crazy but maybe at least one of the experts coming up with the laws should be a person who has been hit by a car and is willing (or given the opportunity) to go through the same tests and qualifications as the others so they can also become “experts”.

But that would be artificially changing the makeup of the group of experts and that is not what should be happening right? 🙂

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

Ok. Cool. Thanks for that Nana. I think that’s helped to clear up some stuff in my head.

Was waiting to reply a little because I wanted to see if anyone else wanted to join in and add stuff – but oh well: I guess it’s just me for now…

Let me start with a joke:

There’s an engineer, a priest, and a doctor – all enjoying a round of golf.
Ahead of them is a group playing so slowly and inexpertly that in frustration they ask someone for an explanation.

“That’s a group of blind firefighters,” they are told. “They lost their sight saving our clubhouse last year, so we let them play for free.”

The priest says, “I will say a prayer for them tonight.”

The doctor says, “Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them.”

And the engineer says, “Why can’t they play at night?”
whats your problem

I could be totally wrong: but I feel like the issue here is that you guys are thinking like priests and doctors – and I’m thinking more like an engineer…

Like: I think we agree on a lot of stuff but thinking it over I think that maybe the crux of where we disagree maybe is around the concept of the “expert.” Looking back I guess that maybe I poisoned the well a little by quoting the typical Brexit line about how “people have had enough of experts” which you know: I think is a very interesting phrase in quite a few ways… Trying to keep it short – I would venture that yeah people have had enough of “experts” but only “experts” in the sense of those who act and behave in a way that makes them seem as if they know more than most people – a really good example for me would be those who believe in mainstream economics *cough* but obvs other peoples takes will differ…

So yeah – “experts” with scare-quotes = boo. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the idea of real experts. You know: people who’ve actually sat down and thought about whatever issue it is and done the research and spoken to people and etc etc. You know: smart people with real expertise. Experts with no scare quotes.

Nana – I don’t know if you believe in the existence of real non scare quote experts – because from what you’ve wrote it seems like every time you’ve written expert you’ve done it like “expert.” But I believe that there are real experts. You know: as should be massively obvious from everything I’ve wrote here – I’m no fan of following authorities just because people tell me too – I’m much too cynical and skeptical for something like that. But if someone has a good argument and they talk or write in a way that makes me feel like my knowledge and awareness and understanding are being increased. I mean obviously – as with everyone I do like stuff that tends to agree with what I already think (that Orwell quote about the pleasuring of reading something that tells you what you struggled to put into words) but you know: I also like to read stuff that I disagree with (altho I should admit that nine times out of ten it does just make me angry LOL). And well yeah: from my perspective most of the time people aren’t expressing new information or new ideas – but rather regurgitating common sense opinions because well – like I said before – humans are social animals and we take most of our cues from what other people say and do…

you are still a monkey

(Good example maybe? This reads like it was written by an algorithm. There’s no real thinking going on here – just banality after banality. Everything everyone has already said about Stranger Things minimally reheated. Less an article – more like a press-release).*

But yeah to go back to the person being hit by a car example (which I’ve got to admit I like more and more the more I think about it): I mean maybe what it shows us it that we’re looking for different things and different kinds of catharsis? Like if you’re trying to make the person who’s been hit by the car feel better then yeah – it makes sense to talk to other people who’ve been hit by cars and well like Nana said: “describe how the incident affected their ability to work later, interact with their friends and family and even how it hurts now every time the weather gets cold.” Because obviously that would help and would provide reassurance and let you know that you’re not alone… And hell – to go even further than that: it would make sense that people who got hit by cars would want people who haven’t been hit by cars to know what their experience was like so you know – they could emphasize and offer help and assistance and etc… That all makes sense.

I got that joke from the start from this here Malcolm Gladwell piece: The Engineer’s Lament Two ways of thinking about automotive safety.

(And just for the record: please don’t mistake me for a Malcolm Gladwell fan. Like: I think most of the time his writing is about creating the illusion that he’s saying something smart rather than actually saying something smart – but maybe that’s a conversation for another day…)

I read it a while back (maybe back when it was first published?): and all of the talk about car crashes and experts and stuff made me think of it so I went back and gave it a reread and basically wow – because it’s talking about exactly the same stuff as we’re talking about here (if you want to nitpick – then ok – it’s actually more car accidents than car crashes: but the principal is the same): and one of the things I think it does a good job illuminating is the idea that the common sense assumptions of people who are victims of car crashes (and their families etc) can be completely opposed to the car crash experts…

If you don’t wanna read the whole article (altho you should! I’d really recommend it!) This bit in particular kinda sums it up:

You and I would feel safer in a car that met the 301 standard. But the engineer, whose aim is to maximize safety within a series of material constraints, cannot be distracted by how you and I feel. If you are busy empathizing with blind firefighters—if your goal is to treat them with the same consideration you would sighted golfers—how do you get them to consider that everyone might be better off if they playedat night? The grievance at the heart of that joke is that we wrongly think of the engineers’ attitude as callous, when to their mind, in their focus on identifying the real problem, they are the opposite of callous.

Basically – that’s pretty much where I’m coming from. I realise that I probably sound callous and bad and maybe even “typical straight white male” or whatever. But what I’m trying to do (in my own awkward misguided way) is to get to the heart of the problem…

she bang

Because: oops – to try and get back to the whole issue of Race. From the conversations I’ve had and the things that I’ve read I think that most people are looking in the wrong place. It’s like trying to understand car crashes only by talking to the victims and not being bothered or wanting to speak to those who theorize about it…

And you know: please don’t get me wrong. I am in no way trying to paint myself as one of those experts. Mostly all I really have is questions (including: “Where does Racism come from / what creates it?” “How should we describe it?” “What makes someone a racist?” “What “How can we create a world without racism?” etc). But you know: there are good people out there and cool things you can read: here and here and hereand here and here and here. But mainly I guess my point is still the same as it was at the start (as it is maybe always) like it says in Preacher: “An’ you judge a person by what’s in ’em, not how they look.”

Hope that’s all ok. Will leave it there for now.

*Altho hell – now I think about it – maybe it’s a meta-comment on Strange Things itself? LOL

Barbican Comic Forum

Hi Joel,

Thank you for your response.

Yes I do believe people can become experts.

Interesting joke about the firemen. Playing at night makes life more convenient for the engineer, but is it safer/better for the firefighters (less people around if something goes wrong)? Maybe playing requires some of them to be dropped off by family? Does the engineer care as long as he no longer has to wait on them? The point I’m trying to make is if you’re trying to build a machine some solutions are great. When dealing with people, societal processes, the same approach doesn’t necessarily work.

People won’t always agree and that’s fine. We’ve both expressed our opinions, and I have clarified the quote that was attributed to me. Let’s agree to disagree.

Geek Genre / Twitter

I have to say I really enjoyed American Born Chinese, its one of those grapgic novels that the more you read the more it enriches you with thosw stereotypical stories of lets say fairly strong racial tension and situations where it is culturally going against the grain with people coming from a totally diverse background; in which this case its a Chinese ethnic person going to America, the fairly main focal character the author himself Jin Yang facing his challenges of going to a school which is very white in ethnic background and trying to fit in, with the coming of age sense and trying to break the mould and take over those throw challenges and as you read the story with surprising consequences and results. As the story sequence do proclaim it is a coming of age so it also diverts slightly to the racial themes with Jin trying to win Amelia Harris’s heart from Greg whom is in the same position as Jin from a standpoint of view, its this light heartness with not being too strong on that division thar makes the story appealing and relatable.


I can kind of emphasise this character aswell as loosely relate to him coming from a fairly similar background. Its these things which are new experiences or thoughts you think about with culture change/differenes or nuances are posed upon, and in where often the themes of cultural difference. One thing I can really take to example in the graphic novel are the mannerisms and also the brotherly love friendship between the two characters as shown here, the rebellion but also the optimism shown in this part of the comic, and there are other ones aswell, which tug the heart strings!


It does remind me which is ironically happening with the timing of the review of the Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong fighting on against the grain of mainland China suppression and it can be relatable to the story with the historical backlog and how they have progrssed, Jin starting with nothing and gaining as he becomes friends with Wei Chen Sun going .

All in all its a great fun graphic novel!


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