Graphic Novels and the English Language Learner: American Born Chinese

by Julia López-Robertson, Jennifer Judy, Lisa Stockdale with Kirstin Wade, The University of South Carolina

Cover from American Born ChineseYang stresses the importance of being who you truly are and nothing less. As teachers it is our duty to create a classroom environment in which our students can feel free and comfortable being themselves.

Student Response to American Born Chinese

This month my students and I explore the use of young adult novels with English Language Learners; several of the blogs will provide suggestions for classroom use which will include a discussion of the assessment of English Language Learners in mainstream classrooms. We begin our blog with an exploration of American Born Chinese (Yang, 2006).

Gene Yang’s award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese (2006), often light-heartedly depicts some of the harsh realities in the journey of finding comfort in being ones true self in today’s judgmental and unaccepting mainstream society. The author touches on the debilitating nature of stereotypes and cultural assimilation, and the discovery of self-acceptance that leads to a sense of freedom.

According to research findings by Rivas-Drake, Hughes & Way (2006) Chinese Americans experience a higher rate of peer discrimination and lower self-esteem than the study’s African American group by comparison. This is due in part to some of the offensive stereotypes that target Asians in the US – think Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Yang represents these stereotypes in the form of his character, Chin-Kee; through language (switching ‘l’ with ‘r’), appearance (clothing, hair, overly exaggerated teeth and eye shape), name (Chin-Kee = chinky), and know-it-all attitude.

Gomes & Carter (2010) point out that even seemingly positive stereotypes can have a negative effect, as their example of an Asian student who is expected to be good at math and science based on inaccurate assumptions, but silently struggles with it due to embarrassment, clearly shows. Additionally, students from a culture other than the mainstream are frequently encouraged (and sometimes expected) to assimilate, which causes loss of culture and home language to survive in American society.

Classroom application for English Language Learners

Graphic novels can function as visual support for “promotion and reinforcement of language and content learning” (Gottlieb, 2006, p.134). Additionally, graphic novels may be used to validate and confirm text, provide comprehensible input for processing language, to support various ways to access content, to construct meaning, and to communicate ideas, and more.

Graphic organizers can be used in conjunction with a graphic novel to assess general comprehension of the story with Venn diagrams (compare/contrast Jin and Danny) and/or using T-charts (sort out details of the storyline, main idea, etc.). Yang (2008) found success in using graphic novels to teach Algebraic concepts, and even wrote an academic article, Graphic Novels in the Classroom, which promoted the use of graphic novels, in comic strip format. He discovered also that the love for and immersion in visual media “bridges a gap between media we watch and media we read” (Yang, 2008, p.187) And since we already know that ELLs need visual reinforcements, graphic novels are perfectly suited for all of our students!

Student Responses and Connections

Students read An Historical Analysis of the United States Supreme Court and Its Adjudication of Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 (1973) by Martha Casas (2006) to provide some historical background to the plight of Chinese students in American schools. The following are student responses and connections to ABC and this particular article:

Student Response:
As if children and adolescents do not already question who they are or who they are on the way to becoming, teachers and students further isolate the culturally diverse students by causing more internal conflict about their identities. This can result in frustration, as evidenced in American Born Chinese via the Monkey King – destroying the dinner party, forcing himself and his loyal subjects to wear shoes, distancing himself from his innate, monkey ways, changing his appearance and title to avoid being associated with monkeys, and even blatantly denying his species. Yang cleverly uses this animal to represent the cruelties of life for being different and stages of identity crisis amongst human beings to fit in. The transformation of Jin to Danny tells a similar story.

Student Response:
Yang stresses the importance of being who you truly are and nothing less. As teachers it is our duty to create a classroom environment in which our students can feel free and comfortable being themselves. ABC provides a foot in the door to opening this subject to students. In the article, How American Born Chinese Motivates, Gomes (2010) did an excellent job by creating a blog that served as a “safe house” for her students who needed partial anonymity and a sense of security to participate in meaningful discussion. The message that Yang sends in his book delivers a powerful moral for students from any and all cultural backgrounds, especially adolescents who are still wrestling with positive self-esteem and identity. Some students just need to hear the wise words of Wong Lai-Tsao: “The form you have taken is not truly your own. Return to your true form and you shall be freed” (Yang, 2006, p.145).

Student Response:
In the case of Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), the plaintiff who was Chinese, attempted to force the defendants, the Mississippi State Superintendent and Board of Trustees, to allow his daughter, Martha Lum, to attend an all-White school instead of making her attend a lower-quality all-Black school. In the lower court, Lum was successful. However, in an appeal, the Mississippi State Supreme Court overturned the decision and deemed that because Martha Lum was “not White” citing other court cases upon which they based their decision. What was most offensive to me in reading the Casas (1987) article may have been that the Mississippi State Supreme Court’s justification for overturning the lower court’s decision because “Martha could never marry a White man, it was better for her to attend a colored school since she would probably be associating with Black men in the future” (p. 87). The child was nine, for goodness sake! How ludicrous that court would make a ruling on whom Martha might associate in the future!

Student Response:
In the Keyes v. Denver School District 1 case, the plaintiffs argued for district-wide changes in segregation and for more equal educational opportunities for African American and Latino students. Once again, the higher court stated that they had no basis to rule in favor of the plaintiffs because they found the school were a result of “de jure segregation” (Casas, 1987, p. 90), or pertaining to the law. Furthermore, the court ruled that the neighborhood schools allowed students to walk shorter distances to school. It was not until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that de jure segregation was declared illegal. Could it be that this ruling passed because there was finally a Supreme Court justice of color—Thurgood Marshall—on the bench? Does someone have to be of a certain race to have understanding for that race? I think, of course, not!

In closing
The children in our classrooms represent a wide variety of languages and cultures. We cannot possibly know about all cultures and languages and one way to engage all of our students in learning about other languages, cultures and other worlds is to immerse them in literature representing that variety. Does someone have to be of a certain race to have understanding of that race?

Casas, M. (2006). An Historical Analysis of the United States Supreme Court and Its Adjudication of Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 (1973). Journal of Thought 41(4), pp. 83-102.

Gomes, C. & Carter, J.C. (2010). Navigating through Social Norms, Negotiating Place; How American Born Chinese Motivates Struggling Learners. English Journal 100 (2), pp. 68–76.

Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges From Language Proficiency to Academic Achievement . NY: Corwin Press

Rivas-Drake, D., Hughes, D. & Way, N.J. (2008). A Closer Look at Peer Discrimination, Ethnic Identity, and Psychological Well-being Among Urban Chinese American Sixth Graders. Youth Adolescence 37 pp.12–21.

Yang, G.L. (2008). Graphic Novels in the Classroom. Language Arts 85 (3); pp. 185-192

Yang, G.L. (2006). American Born Chinese. NY: Squarefishbooks.

[Editor Note: American Born Chinese is reviewed in Volume II, Issue 1 of WOW Review.]

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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