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Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang on bringing 'American Born Chinese' to TV


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: American Born Chinese is not a typical coming of age story. The new Disney Plus streaming series follows teenager Jin Huang as he tries to balance his life at a predominantly white high school, with his life at home with his Chinese immigrant parents, and even more worlds collide when he becomes entangled in a battle of mythological Chinese gods.

The series which features this year's Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan is loosely based on the groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name. Gene Luen Yang is the author of that book and he's one of the show's executive producers. Gene, first of all, I as far as I can tell, we're not related.

Gene Luen Yang: Yeah. Yeah, I think ancient Yang's are just very good at having families.

John Yang: That's it. But we are both American born children of Chinese immigrants.

Gene Luen Yang: That's right.

John Yang: This series plays a lot on self-identity on self-assimilation, how much of that it comes from your own life?

Gene Luen Yang: Well, the book which came out in 2006, it's fiction. But I pulled very, very heavily from my own life experience. I never met a magic monkey. But I did grow up in a neighborhood that was predominantly not the same as me.

You know, I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. I went to a predominantly white school. And I did go through a period of time, when I felt embarrassed of all of the things about myself that made me different from the people around me, that carried on into the show.

I think the book is just from me, but the show is from a whole bunch of us. And many, many of the folks who worked on the show, both in front of and behind the camera, had that same experience of going through a period of their life where they weren't settled about who they are.

John Yang: Along those lines. I want to play a clip from the show. It's where the main character meets a new student at his high school right now.

Man: I'm really sorry. My Chinese isn't super good.

Woman: Well, this is Wayne Chang. He's a new student and he's Chinese like you.

Man: Okay.

Woman: I thought that you could show him around since you two have so much in common.

Man: We do.

Woman: So for the rest of the day, he's going to be your shadow.

Man: Sorry, my what?

Woman: He's going to tag along with you to all of your classes except English, because he's ESL and math. He's way ahead of you in math.

John Yang: It's a funny scene, but there's a lot going on there. What were you trying to show there?

Gene Luen Yang: That scene was written by Kelvin Yu who came from Bob's Burgers, that's where a lot of the humor comes from. And in that scene, there are these two boys, Jen, who is an ABC and American Born Chinese, and Wei-Chen, who comes from Asia.

And in a lot of ways, their relationship kind of symbolizes Jin's own relationship with his cultural heritage. Like at first, he's really embarrassed by this new friend. Right. But as the friendship progresses, he realizes that that that friend, Wei-Chen is actually connected to a much wider and much deeper world.

For a lot of us were immigrants kids. At first, we're embarrassed of our parent's culture, and of the kids at our school that comes from that culture. But as we get older, we realize that our parent's culture is actually connected to something much deeper and much wider than we first imagined.

John Yang: And the character getting involved or getting caught up in the mythological story of the Monkey King, is that sort of him re engaging with his heritage.

Gene Luen Yang: Oh, absolutely. Monkey King is arguably the most important figure in Chinese mythology. If you go to China, if you go to Japan, you'll see Monkey King all over the place. He's on lunchboxes and T-shirts. And he's also part of classic literature.

So, in this -- in the story that we tell both in the book and in the show, the Monkey King kind of symbolizes all of that, it symbolizes this wider world of Chinese mythology and Chinese wisdom that the main character learns about and gets to know.

John Yang: The last time you were on the show that you talked about how you liked graphic novels, because of the interplay between pictures and words. And when the graphic novel came out in 2006, it was notable, in part because of the way he told the story, sort of three separate stories that get seemingly unrelated that get wrapped up at the end, when you brought it from the page to the screen did you have to lose some of that?

Gene Luen Yang: Because it's a television series, because we're doing eight episodes in the first season. The collisions happen differently, the world of Jin Huang is normal, high school life, it collides with the world of the mythological gods right at the end of the very first episode.

And then we do have this third world, this world of a sitcom that stars a character who is kind of like an embodiment of all of the Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes that haunted so many of us, when we were growing up, that world collides, I think in a really beautiful way, in episode seven of the first season.

John Yang: I want to talk about that character, because in the book, you call him Chin T, which is obviously, you know, playing off the racial slur that has been applied to Chinese. And I've read that you will fear that because of that character, this would never be adapted for the screen. How did you solve that problem?

Gene Luen Yang: Well, I kind of didn't want it to be adapted, you know, not directly from the book, because I was always worried that that cousin character that you're talking about, would if it ever got adapted, he would show up on YouTube as these disembodied clips, you know, decontextualized. And that would be the exact opposite of what I was trying to do in the book. They took that fear that I had, and they made it a plot point in the very first episode.

So in the very first episode, we see the main character being haunted by these clips on social media, of this character who kind of embodies all these negative Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes? And in doing that, I think Kelvin in his writer's room, teach the viewer how to think about that character.

John Yang: Are there things in this television adaptation that you admire that you wish you had thought of when you when you wrote the graphic novel?

Gene Luen Yang: Well, I mean, the big thing is that it's in television, right? It's a totally different medium from the comic book or the graphic novel. And I think the team that created this television series, they are experts at what they do.

One of the things that I admire the most is actually the way they choreograph the action. There's no -- you can have action in a comic book, but nothing's actually moving. It's all still, still images. It's not really fun to look at. It also expresses character.

They were so careful about all of the fight choreography, and about making sure that the fights the punches, and the kicks actually express something about the inner motivations of all the characters that I deeply admire.

John Yang: Gene Luen Yang is the author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese and one of the executive producers of the streaming series American Born Chinese. Gene, thank you very much.

Gene Luen Yang: Thank you. Thank you so much, John.

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