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American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese Jin

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Jin Wang just wants to be like everyone else.

It’s not easy. Jin lives in a world of Johns and Gregs and Trevors. He and his Chinese heritage sort of stand out at high school. And for a sophomore who’d rather just fit in, being different can be a pain.

“I just want to be a regular guy who does regular things,” he says.

But transfer student Wei-Chen doesn’t want Jin to be regular. In fact, the fate of the world—or several—might depend on Jin being remarkably irregular.

Journey to the Earth

Wei-Chen’s traveled a long way to go to this American high school and hang with Jin. A long way. Forget China. Forget Taiwan. Wei comes from the Heavenly Realm, a mystical place ruled by the Jade Emperor, as it has been for thousands of years.

But there’s trouble up there. The Bull Demon has his eyes on the throne. Normally, the super-fantastical Monkey King would be the realm’s main defender, but someone stole his magic staff: his son.

And who’s that son? Wei-Chen.

That’s clearly not great son behavior, either in the Heavenly Realm or on Earth. But the kid’s got a plan. See, he wants to use the magical staff to find a fourth magical scroll which will then prevent the Bull Demon from—

OK, maybe we should move on. The upshot is this: Wei-Chen wants to save the Heavenly Realm, too, and he thinks this fourth scroll is just the ticket. But he needs Jin to be his guide. For some reason.

Jin has issues of his own. His dad’s stuck in a dead-end job, and he and his mother fight about whether he should stand up to his boss or not. He’s got a crush on a girl named Alyssa, and he’d love to ask her out. But is he really in her league?

And then there’s the whole fitting in thing. Wei-Chen, even disguised as a regular ol’ high schooler, isn’t a regular ol’ high schooler, if you catch my drift. He’s outspoken. Opinionated. And while Jin’s more likely to shrug off racial insults as just harmless jokes, Wei will fight for respect.

And when the Monkey King’s son fights, well, you better watch out.

Not Monkeying Around

Disney+ has released some fine shows. But rarely does it roll out one with two freshly minted Oscar winners.

Chinese Born American is the exception. Featuring both Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan from Everything Everywhere All at Once, the show gives us a curious combination of a superhero story and a John Hughes film, all rooted in Asian culture.

Based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese examines what it means to be just that: a person partly rooted in one culture while making his way in another. And while the series focuses especially on the cultural push-pull of homogenization vs. embracing your native culture and ethnicity, it also speaks to that more universal struggle that most of us face from time to time: our competing desires to fit in and to stand out.

Speaking of which, American Born Chinese is a stand-out show that stands apart from any of Disney’s sometimes overbearing franchises. It’s fun and funny and exciting and surprisingly multilayered.

But it’s far from perfect.

Obviously, the series is rooted in Asian folklore: While the Monkey King is not a god, exactly, he’s certainly not mortal. And Yeoh’s character, Guanyin, is the goddess of mercy, we’re told, one who shows up in a number of Eastern religions. Magic leaves a big footprint here. And as the show continues, we’ll likely see gods, demigods and demons by the bushel. (We should note that Gene Luen Yang, the graphic novel author, is Christian, and he incorporated his beliefs to some extent in the book—changing an important Buddha character to the Christian-influenced god Tze-Yo-Tzuh; whether those beliefs make it to the screen here, we can’t say yet.)

Viewers can also expect to hear some mild profanity. Dating and bullying both are important subjects. Racism of all stripes becomes a source of both discomforting comedy and contention. And naturally, violence will be a frequent visitor to this martial-arts-heavy series, including between Wei-Chen and his superpowered pops.

But overall, Chinese Born American doesn’t push the content envelope. It’s a fun show with something to say. And that makes it irregular in a good way.

Episode Reviews

May 24, 2023—S1, Ep1: “What Guy Are You”

As Jin tries to fit in at the dawn of his sophomore year—trying out for the soccer team and even stealing a jacket that he feels might make him more popular—the principal asks him to show a new transfer student around. The new kid, Wei-Chen, doesn’t help with Jin’s quest to fit in, and for good reason: He’s the son of the Monkey King in disguise.

The episode is bookended with fight scenes featuring Wei-Chen and his shapeshifting father. To begin the episode, Wei-Chen runs through a mythical landscape as the Monkey King changes form to keep up. When Wei-Chen tries to use his father’s stolen magical staff, he accidentally catapults himself into the sky and bounces painfully down a mountain ridge. The episode’s concluding battle takes place in a high school hallway; plenty of property is damaged, but no one’s hurt.

In more realistic violence, Jin gets smacked in the face with a door, lands on a cart and smashes his head against a glass trophy case. Someone records the incident and posts it online—tacking on a racist punchline. When Jin suspects a “friend” of posting the video, he attacks him during soccer tryouts. The actual clash takes place offscreen, but we do see that Jin knocked himself flat on his back and his adversary’s nose is bleeding.

We see godlike beings and magic use. A demon is referenced. A science teacher announces that students will be learning all about evolution; he points to a chart of the progression of primates from monkey to man and singles out one in particular, claiming it’s his ex-wife. “You shouldn’t comment about a woman’s appearance,” a student says. The teacher quickly retracts the statement and apologizes.

A guy wears Goth-like makeup to school in an effort to look like an anime character. (He admits the makeup is a work in progress.) Jin explains cosplay to his mother as “dress[ing] up as a warrior or a sexy demon.” Jin’s mother asks him if he’s wearing clean underwear to school. We see clips from a 1990s sitcom that, to our 21st-century eyes, looks painfully racist. (Students debate whether laughing at said clips is, indeed, racist, or merely ironic.) We hear “a–,” “h—” and “crap.” God’s name is misused once.

May 24, 2023—S1, Ep2: “Monkey on a Quest”

Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, decides to help Wei-Chen in his quest to retrieve an important scroll (though there’s some debate whether the scroll even exists). The first step in that quest, according to Wei-Chen, is to befriend Jin. Wei saw Jin in a dream and was told (by a giant crane) that he would be Wei-Chen’s guide. Meanwhile, Jin is trying to deal with the fallout of the embarrassing video taken of him last episode: While other minority students encourage him to forcefully denounced the racist vid, Jin knows the person who took and posted it may be the key to getting a spot on the soccer team.

Meanwhile, Jin’s father and his boss bond over a mutual love of Bon Jovi—but that connection might come too late to advance Jin’s father’s career.

A man with piglike facial features fights Wei-Chen as an encouragement to come home to the Heavenly Realm. Much of a school kitchen is destroyed, but neither Wei nor his opponent seems seriously hurt. The piglike person (“Pigsy,” fittingly enough) disappears at the end of the fight.

Wei also accidentally demolishes a weight room. We hear that the video taken of Jin violates the school’s anti-bullying code, and the video’s poster asks Jin to put a good word in with him with the principal (so he can avoid suspension and missing soccer games).

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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