Extraordiary in the Ordinary: “American Born Chinese” Season 1 Review

American Born Chinese
Image: trailer screengrab

Loosely based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of two songs fighting for their own identity. Jin Wang (Ben Wang) wants to just be “normal” – hang out with his friends, make the soccer team, be part of the crowd. Sun Wei-Chen (Jim Liu), the son of the legendary Monkey King, is seeking the mythical Fourth Scroll, hoping to put an end to the uprising against Heaven. You know, just your everyday, average teenagers.

American Born Chinese tells multiple stories concurrently. Though at first they seem only tangentially connected, by the end of eight episodes, everything is connected in a way you may not have expected. While Wei-Chen has come looking for Jin, believing he is necessary for his quest, it takes a while for Jin to fully come into Wei-Chen’s arc. It isn’t until Jin witnesses Wei-Chen using his godly powers that he even believes his story, and even then it takes him a while to fully jump on board.

There is a meta thread throughout, utilizing an old television sitcom from the ’90s using outdated and stereotypical humor with the Asian character (Ke Huy Quan), and even that connects to the main story. I thought it was really clever how they worked that in, as the sitcom bits are a large part of the original graphic novel.

But even though they aren’t fully integrated at first, they still run parallel in a way that lets you know what’s important. The action scenes in Wei-Chen’s story are often intercut with whatever is going on with Jin at the moment. In fact, there’s a moment when Wei-Chen’s father, Sun Wukong (Daniel Wong), tracks him down and tries to force him back into Heaven, that gives a hint to an important reveal at the end of the eighth episode. I didn’t get the importance of the symbolism until later, but it was a really great way to tease what’s coming.

I greatly enjoyed this aspect. I think the show did a nice balancing act of realism with xianxia and wuxia elements. You can tell that this series is heavily influenced by Chinese media; the action scenes are straight from a wuxia drama or a Hong Kong martial arts movie, which is fantastic among a landscape where so many action sequences look exactly the same.

American Born Chinese also did a great job showing how the different arcs mirror each other. Both Jin and Wei-Chen are undergoing universal growing pains, experiencing life moments that apply to everyone – human, god, Asian, whatever. Aspects of their arcs, like their struggle for an identity independent from their parents’, are something that literally everyone experiences and can therefore relate to. It’s for this reason that the lack of explanations of cultural aspects – like the Monkey King or the hierarchy in Heaven – don’t matter. You don’t need to know all the details because they’re not important. In this series, Sun Wukong is more than the Monkey King, he is Wei-Chen’s father.

American Born Chinese
Image: trailer screengrab

There is a lot going on in season 1 of American Born Chinese. Aside from Wei-Chen’s quest for the Fourth Scroll and the whole uprising thing, Jin struggles to find his identity in high school. There is a lot of focus on the microaggressions (and macroaggressions) he has to put up with – people constantly mispronouncing his name, kids who consider him the spokesperson for everyone of Asian descent when it comes to whether or not a borderline racist character is “ironic”, having to show a new student around because “they have so much in common” and what they have in common is that they’re both Chinese. But there’s also him not wanting his cool new soccer buddies to remember that he’s super into comic books, and he thinks his friend Ajun (Mahi Alum) is totally overreacting for being mocked for his cosplay.

Jin’s parents, Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) and Simon (Chin Han), also get a subplot, centered around Christine’s frustrations that Simon won’t take more risks with his career in order to advance at his company. The parents’ arc explores the pains of an immigrant family struggling to connect with a shared culture they don’t have. Though they mostly revolve around Jin and his arc, their story mirrors aspects of his – such as the need to stand up for himself and have more confidence. At one point, they are even vital to the story in a touching scene that ends in a hilarious misunderstanding.

All of these subplots make this first season a little bloated. I don’t think I would necessarily have removed or shortened any of the subplots – I think they all fit together quite nicely and provide vital context for the characters’ actions and motivations. However, the show might have benefitted from a longer run time, be it through longer episodes or additional episodes. It’s a consequence of the shortened seasons of streaming series; shows are no longer given the opportunity to breathe.

American Born Chinese
Image: trailer screengrab

What makes this show, I think, are the performances. Wang and Liu are more than capable as series leads, but you have to admit that the side characters steal the show. Wu, Han, Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and Michelle Yeoh (as the goddess Guanyin) all lend a gravitas to the series that makes you sit up and take notice.

While there is a lot of levity, this show deals with some heavy subject material and is more serious in tone than I expected. Still, there are some fantastically humorous moments. I especially loved Guanyin vowing not to be bested by IKEA furniture.

American Born Chinese is a fun show with some very good messages. It’s not just about the importance of being true to yourself, of having confidence and standing up for yourself. There are also some very wise messages about the importance of everyday heroism, of the extraordinary in the ordinary. As Quan’s character explains, being a hero is just about going on a journey and helping people in need.

I really hope there is a second season, not only because it’s set up perfectly, but also because now that they’ve gotten some of these subplots out of the way, they can give the characters a chance to grow.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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