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Disney+'s 'American Born Chinese' (Catholic, That Is)

June 1, 2023 | By

In the new Disney+ show American Born Chinese, series creator Kelvin Yu (Bob's Burgers) adapts the graphic novel of the same name from writer and cartoonist Gene Luen Yang.

One Show, Multiple Storylines

Following recent multiverse trends, both the graphic novel and streaming show tie together three parallel storylines.

Teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang) navigates his local high school in a traditional coming-of-age story.

Jin’s story arc provides a link between the other two stories: the immigration journey of his sidekick, “fresh off the boat”-er Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), and the saga of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) a famous Chinese legend from the 16th century.

Fans of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once -- awarded Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards -- will land in familiar territory with American Born Chinese, which cast a couple of the Oscar-winning actors from the film: Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh.

Producing and directing is Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed the Marvel feature Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.


Exploring the Immigrant Experience

For what it’s worth, I feel the contemporary coming-of-age story of Jin trying to assimilate to American culture stands on its own. Two of my best friends from high school emigrated from China, and the characters in the show are spot on.

The message of the show forms connective tissue with something the mother of one of my Chinese-born friends said to me at my friend’s wedding.

Coming from another country, language and culture, she and her husband only wanted their children to fall in with the “right” group of American friends, and, to my credit, she was grateful one of those friends was me.

The other two storylines initially seem superfluous to the main character’s journey but make sense by the show’s end.

The Meeting of Magical Realism and Faith

Without giving away the plot, I can generally state the show embraces elements of magic realism — invisible characters from the heavens aid Jin in his everyday life.

These creative elements come from the mind of graphic novelist  Gene Luen Yang. Yang’s Catholic parents came from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His father encouraged him to major in computer science, with a concession that he could indulge creative writing on the side. While working in the corporate world, a weekend retreat convinced him God was calling him to teach and to write.

Pauline Books and Media – run by the Daughters of St. Paul, the #medianuns on Twitter -- published Yang's first story, The Rosary Comic Book.

Yang carved out a career balanced between mainstream and faith-based works. Even casual superhero fans will recognize Superman and Avatar: The Last Airbender, which Yang wrote for.

Boxers and Saints

 More of the comic nerds like me might have heard of Boxers and Saints, his greatest graphic-novel creation. The two-volume story takes place during China’s Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

Chinese nationalists rebelled against colonial powers and rounded up innocent Christians in the kill frenzy.

One of the volumes, Saints, tells a single martyrdom from the time period through the point of the view of the victim, a recent Christian-convert Chinese woman. Boxers describes the same martyrdom from the side of the persecutor, a secular Chinese man.

Saints constitutes the considerably shorter volume, and was written intentionally so. The author’s point, I think, is to show a practicing Christian’s path to forgiving someone else is (generally speaking) arrived at much sooner than a non-believer realizing his grave mistake and forgiving himself.

Christianity in American Born Chinese

In season one, the show depicts faith explicitly in the life of the Wang family. The mother, Christine (Yann Yann Yeo), meets with a group of Church mothers, one of whom refers to a letter from St. Paul.

Ben talks about his mother and her faith as the most important thing in her life, next to family. I would recommend the show to my cousins’ children (my nieces and nephews, in my mother's Filipino culture).

The show makes the not-so-bold assumption that a life of faith can help avoid pressures facing teens.

Ben and his friends are shown having fun bowling, going to the arcade, participating in a scavenger hunt, even studying without the lubricant of alcohol or drugs.

The cast and creator talk about the cultural aspects of the show:


Image: (L-R) Jim Liu, Michelle Yeoh in American Born Chinese; Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

Click here to visit USC-film-school graduate Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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