What is the significance of the novel’s title?
American Born Chinese has a double meaning that plays on Jin's dilemma as a character as both American and Chinese. On one hand, the title references how Jin is seen by mainstream American society as someone who is ethnically Chinese but born on US soil, making him, therefore, an American-born Chinese person. The second meaning speaks to Jin's desire to be seen and accepted as American: in this sense, he is an American who happens to be born Chinese. Thus, the novel's title has an ironic double meaning that captures the forces that push and pull Jin as he struggles to accept his identity.
How is the theme of racial discrimination handled in the American Born Chinese?
The novel addresses the theme of racial discrimination both subtly and overtly. In Jin's storyline, racism arises casually: white students avoid Jin, make fun of his lunch, taunt him, and spread rumors. In the Chin-Kee storyline, however, racism is blatant and over-the-top, as Chin-Kee embodies the extreme of every misinformed stereotype white Americans have used to denigrate Chinese people since the late 1800s. The contrasting storylines show how the more subtle and casual racism Jin endures is just as absurd and unwarranted as the stereotypes that Chin-Kee makes plain; moreover, subtler forms of racism are no less hurtful, as the aim of any form of racism is to push away and enforce invisible barriers between people to protect the racist's fear of the unfamiliar.
What or who does Chin-Kee symbolize in the novel?
Chin-Kee is the incarnation of all the negative Chinese racial stereotypes that have been portrayed and perpetuated in popular American media since the 1800s. Chin-Kee is also revealed to be the embodiment of Jin’s self-loathing, as Chin-Kee's habits and qualities are everything Jin wishes not to be associated with. In this way, Chin-Kee is symbolic of Jin's fear that his Chinese heritage will prevent him from integrating into American society. Thus, Chin-Kee shows how the racism of mainstream America has an insidious effect on Jin, preventing him from being able to live out his true identity as an American and as a Chinese person.
How does the concept of discontent function in the novel?
Discontent—i.e. dissatisfaction with one's circumstances—is one of the major themes in American Born Chinese. In the Monkey King storyline, the Monkey King's dissatisfaction with not being recognized in heavens as a supreme being leads him to grow angry and vengeful. To teach him a lesson, Tze-Yo-Tzuh traps him under a pile of rubble for five hundred years. He only has to accept himself in order to be freed from the rocks. He lies in self-pity, paralyzed by his own desire to be something he is not. Similarly, Jin is unhappy about his Chinese identity. Living in a white neighborhood, he is teased and bullied and made to feel like a social outcast. This leads Jin to fantasize about being Danny, a popular white boy, and he loses touch with his true identity in the process. It is only once the Monkey King imparts his wisdom that it is "good to be a monkey" that Jin overcomes his discontent and reconnects with Chinese culture.
In what ways is American Born Chinese a story of transformation?
Transformation—or reincarnation—is one of the novel's central themes. Early in the book, the Monkey King seeks to transform himself from a lowly monkey deity into a supreme being, rising to the same level as the rulers of the universe. As an echo, Jin comments on how he desired as a child to become a Transformer one day, an ambition which the herbalist's wife warns him is possible if he's willing to forfeit his soul. Her words gain great significance later in the story, when Jin wishes to transform out of his Chinese identity and be seen as a regular mainstream American. This desire spurs the Danny plot line, in which Jin has reincarnated himself as a run-of-the-mill white teenager. At the convergence of the book's three stories, it is revealed that Chin-Kee is an incarnation of the Monkey King, and that Wei-Chen is the human form his son takes. Ultimately, the fantastical transformations and reincarnations that occur in the book speak to the theme of wanting to assume an alternate identity rather than accepting the identity one has.