Theme of Self-Identity in the Graphic Novels American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
The coming of age genre is reflective of the life-changing moments in the lives of every growing adolescent. The stories share a mixture of minor yet pivotal events that allow the readers to see themselves in a moment where they are experiencing numerous emotions that they are yet to understand. Within the graphic novels “Skim” by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki and “American Born Chinese” (ABC) by Gene Luen Yang, the theme of self identity is clearly prevalent in impacting the lives of the lead characters.
Both author’s use their characters to express the struggle of self identity as adolescent years are conflicted between conformity and self-acceptance. The author’s don’t hesitate to include the parts of their lives where they are bound to experience criticism because those aspects are usually censored out of ignorance or shame. The act of including the inadmissible is the author’s way of showing the challenges they personally felt in an attempt to extract empathy out of the reader (Taylor). In this essay the author’s create an image that provokes the reader to experience the inadmissible aspects of their adolescent lives that had impacted each character’s journey into coming to terms with their self-identity such as culturally insensitive topics, troubling authority figures and toxic friendships.
Due to the current political climate, our society has advanced itself to be more culturally respectful as we have come to understand the harm it inflicts on various groups. The author’s attempt to show their raw memories during their teenage years and this goes back to a time in which the current concerns would have been disregarded. In ABC, Yang recalls Disney’s brutally racist past and attempts to engage with the toxic pedagogy that the company so famously created for themselves as an excuse to remain ignorant. We initially see the offensive theme to be prevalent when Jin was being introduced to his American classmates for the first time at Mayflower Elementary school.
A classmate states “my momma says Chinese people eat dogs” (Yang, p.31), within a minute of meeting him. Jin goes on to face numerous similar racist stereotypes; Yang depicts Jin’s thoughts of this through a look of pure innocence that show confusion and naivety. Yang shows this to bring an effect of ‘periodic caricature’ as the readers see Jin become the version of himself that is unacceptable as time passes. In the story of Danny and his visiting cousin Chin-kee, Yang does not hold back. Chin-kee is drawn with the stereotypical slanted eyes, buck teeth, long braided hair and yellow skin tone. Chin-kee is made to be a know it-all character who also has the constant drive to produce multiple babies when he spots a pretty girl. Any outsider would argue the offensiveness of this depiction to be inadmissible, but by including it Yang is taking back the power he felt he had lost at that time. Yang later reveals that Chin-kee was a representation of his Chinese background that he was so ashamed to show others because he felt that everyone saw him to be exactly like that.
In Tamaki’s graphic novel, a similar theme is recognized on the subject of mental health. In Skim, readers learn that Katie’s ex-boyfriend had committed suicide not too long after their break-up. Tamaki shows Skim and Lisa to constantly be insensitive to the loss with their humour and conversation in relation to the death. Initially it doesn’t seem like Skim is aware of the importance of mental health and sounds annoyed when confronted with accusations regarding herself. This is inadmissible because it seems to take away from the harsh reality of mental health among young teenagers who might see this as a disregard of their struggle or would use this to avoid accepting when they may need help.
The author uses Skims initial attitude to argue why mental health awareness and support is required when she later goes onto show Skim suffering in silence. After Skim learns that Ms.Archer had truly left once and for all, she is shown isolating herself from not only her friends but to the readers as well by not showing her face in a select few panels (Tamaki, p.105-106). Tamaki was attempting to portray “I tried to take up as little space as possible” (Tamaki, p.105), this can be understood to represent how Skim didn’t want to even exist anymore which brings attention to her own mental state at that point. Tamaki had chosen to include the inadmissible comments about mental health because it shows the readers that it is something capable of affecting just about anyone and any point in their lives.
The authority figures within both graphic novels are shown in a way that challenges the well-respected perception society construct over them and appear to play a role in causing the characters major self-identity crisis. Teachers are supposed to be the educators of tomorrow’s youth yet in Yangs story they are made out to be fools. On Yang’s first day, not only does the teacher mess up Jins name but after a student made an insensitive comment about eating dogs, the teacher says “I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that! In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!” (Yang, p.31).
The mere mispronunciation of Jin’s name is representative of how little the school had done in welcoming Jin to the new environment and the racist tone that was clearly still there when Jin was young. It also influences the rest of the class to assume that those comments don’t harm anyone and that maybe there’s some truth to it. This can be considered inadmissible for its’ awful depiction of educators and the education system in general but Yang felt it was essential to include it for it reveals how the lack of effort implemented to welcome his difference which could have helped him find some self-acceptance within himself instead of assuming he had to conform to something he wasn’t. In Tamaki’s story adults play a role that pushed Skim into attempting to understand her sexuality. Skim is aware that her relationship with Ms.Archer is wrong but continues with it until it completely breaks her.This is inadmissible because not only does Skim choose to keep this a secret forever but Ms. Archer is never faced with any consequence for even considering kissing a student who is also a minor. Tamaki doesn’t seem to consider it inadmissible because Ms.Archer was representative of Skim’s reliance on others for affection, the love her parents lacked to give her due to their broken marriage.
Another minor inadmissible moment is shown when Manny from the cult touched her cheek and breasts without her consent when explaining that she was special. “I see you… in your future using the spirit. I see…a woman” (Tamaki, p. 19). In any other case this would be recognized as sexual harassment but Tamaki seems to complete brush past that and instead uses this moment to reflect that it helped in confirming Skim’s attraction towards woman while also making her feel special about it instead of shameful.
Teenage friendships towards one another is filled with pressure that can come off as rude and hurtful in an attempt to regain their individual power that they feel like they lost (Taylor). In ABC, the author introduces Greg, a fellow white American of a popular status who defends Jin on his first day and is still respected by his peers. Jin obviously idolizes this and begins to not only model himself after Greg but gives power to Greg to have over his own life. This is prevalent after Greg sees Jin on a date with Amelia; Greg uses the admiration Jin had over him to demand that he no longer socialize with Amelia because “I want to make sure she makes good choices…we’re almost in highschool. She has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with” (Yang, 179).
The inadmissible detail is the toxic manipulation by Greg in that moment and when he goes on to talk negatively about Jin to Amelia. Yang shows that the damaged respect Jin had for Greg was the catalyst that led to losing his friends and experiencing the big transformation that resulted in him being absolutely disassociated with his culture. Tamaki depicts a similar challenge with Skim’s best friends: Lisa.
The author is quick to show that Skim didn’t really connect with Lisa but stuck around for the sake of conformity. There are a number of moments when Skim seems to mindlessly agree with Lisa’s comments even when she may not agree with it completely. Specifically right after both friends had an argument; Lisa made the first move to talk but twists the initial issue away from herself. “It’s just that you were acting really psycho and not really talking about it, so I was just like what the fuck, you know?” (Tamaki, p. 37). Skim responds to that by simply agreeing; this is inadmissible as the blame is solely placed onto Skim and manipulates her to normalise the acception of taking blame for things that aren’t her fault. Tamaki included this because when Ms.Archer goes onto ignore and leave Skim, she seems to accept the hurt onto her own self for chasing Ms.Archer away and getting attached in general. The toxic friendship carried on until Skim recognizes her value and grows out of seeking acceptance in a place where acceptance was never available for her.
In conclusion, the inclusion of inadmissible by the author’s was a strategy meant to connect the readers back to their youth years while also revealing the raw reality of the author’s search to accept their culture and sexuality in different contexts. The author constructs a world of inadmissibility that touch upon culturally insensitive topics, awful authority figures and toxic friendships that result in both lead characters coming to love themselves and move on from the past that had kept them locked away from a world of possibilities. In Yang’s graphic novel we experience racial stereotypes, ignorant adults and manipulative friends followed by Tamaki’s experience of lacking seriousness on the topic of mental health, being taken advantage of by a teacher and degrading friendships.
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