The following contains spoilers for American Born Chinese.
At its core, the new Disney+ series American Born Chinese is a light teen drama palatably wrapped in fantasy and action, a coming-of-age high school adventure competently executed. Were it not for the Asian American identity that the title implies, the show would be wholly unremarkable, but even here there is something to learn.
Though we are experiencing something of a renaissance in Asian representation, there are bound to be concepts in the cross-cultural experience that have yet to be explored. In the show’s portrayal of Asian American themes, particularly through its genre of choice, the ideas that shine through the tropes are the ones that are likely still unrepresented. The ideas that misfire are perhaps the ones that have been better portrayed elsewhere.
There’s a point in the series where it introduces the 80s/’90s sitcom parody Beyond Repair, which features deliberately offensive representation of racist Asian stereotypes. It is here where a darkly ironic idea began to crystalize, that this fake show amplifying old stereotypes of a visible minority is featured in a real show which, in itself, might be unintentionally amplifying newer stereotypes in much the same way.
Our protagonist Jin (Ben Wang), the American-born Chinese of the title, lacks both self-confidence and sense of self. He wants nothing more than to fit in and blend into the background. The show’s insistence on “speaking up!” must feel as patronizing to him as it does to the audience. In contrast, the earnest exchange student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) confidently wears all the trappings of a new Chinese immigrant with no awareness of the Western social norms surrounding him, let alone the desire to adopt them.
Jin and Wei-Chen are already everything you might expect from these two Asian archetypes, a borderline regressive portrayal that lacks nuance. Telling this story in this way entrenches the restrictive ideas we already have of these people, rather than telling aspirational stories of who they could and should be, and in many cases already are.
Look at Fresh Off The Boat, for example. Protagonist Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) is a hip-hop loving Asian American teenager, brash and rebellious, with a multicultural group of friends who see him as a whole person. While the rest of the media landscape emasculates Asian American men, his younger brother Emery (Forrest Wheeler) is romantic, smart, and charismatic. He’s already a hit with the ladies, even in elementary school.
In Pixar’s Turning Red, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) completely owns her nerdy and overachieving nature and has no qualms about being loudly and confidently uncool with her like-minded friends – that is, until she turns into a literal panda. These characters are designed from the very beginning to subvert your preconceived notion of what an Asian American is and can be, an inspiring alternative to the archetypes on display in American Born Chinese.
However, upon reaching the resolution of both the fantasy’s story arc as well as the protagonist’s character arc, the series reframes one of the key tensions of the Asian American experience in a new and positive way. The show’s fantasy story concerns Wei-Chen’s search for the Fourth Scroll, which we learn is the Sutra of Power. Its ultimate power is only revealed when the warring factions find harmony.
In parallel, Jin’s coming-of-age story sees him struggle to balance the competing aspects of his cross-cultural life: impressing the soccer team, spending time with his crush, repairing his relationship with his best friend, and helping Wei-Chen on his quest to find the scroll and prevent an uprising in the Heaven of Chinese literature. In other words, Jin is attempting to integrate into Western society, understand and preserve his own Chinese identity, pursue romantic love, and cultivate his own needs and interests, all at the same time.
Though standard fare for an action adventure series, this balancing act takes on more meaning for the Asian American experience. Eastern family-centric collectivism tends to conflict with Western ideals of individualism and self-fulfillment, so to see this on screen is already quite meaningful.
However, to see Jin learn to merge all the conflicting facets of his Asian American life, to see him help those warring factions find harmony, is to see him unlock the truth that it is he, the American-born Chinese, who is the Sutra of Power. Though it is a predictable outcome, there are very few examples of the second generation immigrant experience, Asian or otherwise, portrayed as a source of power – desired and sought after as an ideal to be achieved – instead of simply a compromise between two opposing cultures and ways of life.
For this, and for the show’s earnest intentions, it deserves respect and appreciation. Though I can’t say that I am looking forward to a second season, I am curious to see where they take these ideas next.
All episodes of American Born Chinese are now streaming exclusively on Disney+.