‘American Born Chinese’ Explores Identity Against a Fantasy Backdrop

Loosely inspired by Gene Yang's graphic novel, the Disney Plus show sends gods and demons from Chinese lore into a modern-day high school

We all (hopefully) know by now how much representation matters—both for those of a specific identity, to help them feel seen and understood, and for those outside of it, to provide perspective outside of one’s own lens. Disney Plus’ new teen contemporary fantasy series, American Born Chinese, leans into its exploration of Chinese American identity. Released on May 24, it just squeaked into the tail end of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Congrats, Disney, you have a go-to show to stick in your marketing emails next time you need some Asian rep!

Much has been written about the recent triumphs for (East) Asian (especially Chinese) representation in Hollywood lately. We’ve come a long way from the days when Chinese American silent film icon Anna May Wong was denied a role playing Chinese woman that later went to a white actress (who won for an Oscar for it). From the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians to Marvel (and Hasbro!) starring an Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (and Snake Eyes!) to the Oscars triumphs of Everything Everywhere All At Once and its talent, it feels like we’ve finally reached a fertile land after decades in the desert.

Yet this position feels precarious, and after a lifetime of treating every drop of water, no matter how tiny or tainted (looking at you, Cho Chang), as a precious gem, an instinctive protectiveness arises each time another appears. You will love this Asian American show, my gut tells me, because if you don’t, and it’s perceived as anything but a smashing success, you might never get another. Being good enough isn’t enough. It must be considered exemplary, because anything less than exemplary puts all entertainment of its kind in danger.

Thus is the burden of representation, felt by every minority kid who was the only one of their background in a classroom. And considering how many plots and characters and ideas and concepts were stuffed into its 8 half-hour episodes, those behind American Born Chinese felt this burden all too acutely. It tries to be everything, everywhere, all at once (it features nearly the entire principal cast of that hit!) — it’s a contemporary coming-of-age tale, it’s a gods-and-demons-in-the-modern-world urban fantasy, it’s a Disney Channel teen comedy, it’s an exploration of stereotypes straight from your corporate diversity training video, it’s… it’s…

By the way, the above is not necessarily a complaint. If anything, it’s a plea — for more, please. More screen time to develop characters that appear only as plot devices (especially the women and girls), more time to flesh out world-building details and lore, more episodes to give the multiple intersecting plots space to breathe.

The show is (very) loosely based on Gene Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese and follows two disparate yet constantly crossing storylines. We’re first introduced to Sun Wei-Chen, the adolescent son of the Sun Wukong, who steals his father’s magical staff and flees Heaven in search of the mythical Fourth Scroll. He lands in contemporary California, where high schooler Jin Wang is starting a new school year. Jin, meanwhile, is living a pretty typical high school drama. He wants to get onto the soccer team and be among the cool kids. He’s crushing on his biology lab partner. He’s dealing with parents who can’t stop arguing.

Thanks to a prophetic dream, Wei-Chen believes Jin will be his guide on Earth and seeks him out in the guise of a new student. He’s everything Jin wants to avoid being — he speaks with an accent, he eats traditional Chinese food, he wears geeky clothing… and the teacher saddles Jin with being Wei-Chen’s buddy because they have “so much in common” (because they’re both Chinese, get it?). But what really gets under Jin’s skin is Wei-Chen’s unabashed confidence. Jin has gone out of his way to avoid being seen as a typical Asian nerd, but Wei-Chen, who embodies all these traits, has no problem being one.

I have to say, the early episodes try too hard to stuff every stereotype, bias, and micro-aggression faced by Asian Americans into a single show (I didn’t buy for one second that the teachers — in California! — would misread “Jin” as “Jim” repeatedly). Again, here is the burden of representation… an almost palpable fear that if this show, with its huge platform, doesn’t say something, then no one will.

Meanwhile, a pantheon of characters from Ming dynasty novel Journey Into the West (which proliferates Chinese culture as much as Greek mythology does Western ones) come after Wei-Chen. The only one who seems to be on his side is Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. This leads to some wonderfully choreographed action scenes inspired by classic wuxia films and Hong Kong-style action movies.

While Wei-Chen and Jin’s story lines are in conversation with each other, they don’t truly intersect until the very end, and sometimes it felt like watching two different shows, both entertaining in their own ways. Meanwhile, we get subplots with Jin’s parents (the father who has hit a bamboo ceiling, the mother harboring unrealized ambitions) and an actor who once portrayed an Asian stereotype in a decades-old sitcom.

With a constellation of Asian talent both in front of and behind the camera — Michelle Yeoh! Daniel Wu! Ke Huy Quan! Stephanie Hsu! Ronny Chiang! Jimmy O. Yang! Destin Daniel Cretton! Kelvin Yu! Lucy Liu! Plus our charismatic newcomers Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu! — there was no way this show wasn’t going to entertain. And at the end of the day, American Born Chinese is a fun and charming show full of eye-popping action, witty comedy, quirky teen drama, fantastical lore, and meaningful explorations of what it means to live between worlds. Plus throwbacks to old Chinese TV shows, particularly 1986’s Journey Into the West. It’s also extremely watchable — I binged all 8 episodes in 2 sittings, and there was never a dull moment on screen (an increasingly rare trait in the era of streaming services at the mercy of the gods of “hours watched”).

If it sounded like I didn’t enjoy this show because I started off with a list of criticisms, then know that it’s only because I love it enough to see its potential to be better… like many-a Chinese parent with their overachieving kids. The season 1 finale hinted at future adventures to come… here’s hoping season 2 is around the corner. And many more seasons to come.

4/5 stars

P.S. For those who may not be familiar, the term ABC, which stands for “American Born Chinese,” is commonly used by Chinese and Chinese American people to describe folks like me… born in the U.S. and quite Americanized. So this ABC just reviewed ABC 😉

Mary Fan
Mary Fanhttp://www.MaryFan.com
Mary Fan is a Jersey City-based author of sci-fi/fantasy. Her books include Stronger than a Bronze Dragon, the Starswept Trilogy, the Jane Colt Trilogy, the Flynn Nightsider series, and the Fated Stars series. She is also the co-editor of the Brave New Girls sci-fi anthologies about girls in STEM.

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This juxtaposition of high school drama with Chinese lore explores Chinese American identity against a fantastical backdrop of gods and demons. Though uneven in spots, the show is ultimately entertaining both as a coming-of-age tale and a contemporary fantasy.'American Born Chinese' Explores Identity Against a Fantasy Backdrop