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American Born Chinese Review: An Average Coming-of-Age Tale

The Pitch: Based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, Disney+’s American Born Chinese combines Chinese mythology with coming-of-age storytelling. The show centers around Jin (Ben Wang), an average high school student struggling with all the textbook teenage woes — an unsteady social life, an unrequited crush, and parents who don’t seem to understand him — while simultaneously trying to reconcile his cultural heritage with his desire to fit in with his white peers.

These variables become even more complicated when Jin is tasked with showing new transfer student Wei-Chen (Jim Liu) around, who turns out to be the son of the legendary Monkey King, Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu). All of a sudden, Jin finds himself entangled within an otherworldly war plaguing the heavenly gods.

Kung Fu Fighting: American Born Chinese has all the ingredients of a typical high school sitcom, but with a twist — it has martial arts! Every episode features at least one action-packed fight sequence, each of which is choreographed beautifully, and while supernatural coming-of-age tales aren’t at all new for Disney (see: Ms. Marvel), the show’s action-comedy format allows for a great deal of creativity in terms of incorporating elements of mythology and traditional kung fu within the narrative.

However, the show’s use of martial arts also seems to function as a distraction from an otherwise tired narrative within Asian storytelling — Jin’s personal journey of grappling with his Asian heritage. As seen in the series, his eagerness to assimilate into white culture feels dated and uninteresting, while perpetuating the idea that all Asian stories must center around this same internal struggle, rather than focusing on more nuanced dynamics beyond our cultural identity. In doing so, the series inadvertently commodifies Asianness, by seeing it only in relation to how a white audience can actively understand it.

Everything, Everywhere All At Once: The series makes up for its tropey storytelling with a star-studded cast of Asian talent, including Ronny Chieng, James Hong, and Jimmy O. Yang, to name a few.

Michelle Yeoh is a gem in every scene she’s in, bringing a sweet goofiness to her role as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy: Despite playing an ethereal being, Yeoh brings forward a hilarious relatability as Wei-Chen’s earth caretaker, seamlessly embodying the persona of a silly Asian auntie. And Stephanie Hsu is an absolute delight in her brief appearance as the Goddess of Stones, reuniting and brilliantly riffing alongside Yeoh.

American Born Chinese (Disney+)

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