Composed of three separate narratives that eventually intersect, American Born Chinese begins with the folkloric story of the Monkey King. It is a bright starry night, and a colorful group of gods, goddesses, demons, and spirits are gathered in heaven for a dinner party. The sound of music and scent of wine drift all the way down to Flower Fruit Mountain, a lush land inhabited by monkeys and overseen by the magical Monkey King.
The narrative digresses to explain how the Monkey King became a deity. Long ago he was born of a rock; rays of light flashed from his eyes when he emerged from the egg-like rock, and heaven noticed the light. He purged Flower Fruit Mountain of the tiger spirit who had haunted the area for years by beating the tiger away. The Monkey King’s kingdom attracted monkeys from across the world. He ruled fairly, and, reading scrolls, he learned Kung-Fu and mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, which were prerequisites to immortality: fist-like-lightning, thunderous foot, heavenly senses, and cloud-as-steed (i.e. horse).
After riding a cloud to heaven, the Monkey King is shocked to see that he must wait in line. He waits while thinking about how much he likes dinner parties. However, the guard doesn’t let the Monkey King enter, because he doesn’t have any shoes. The Monkey King is incensed, and cites his legion of followers and the things he has done to become a deity. The guard says that may be so, but he is still a monkey, and so must leave.
The others around the entrance to heaven laugh at his humiliation, and he grows embarrassed. In anger, he screams “Die!” and swings the guard by his topknot. Using his Kung-Fu skills, the Monkey King beats every character present until they are lying in a heap. He rides back to Flower Fruit Mountain shaking; he smells monkey fur in his royal chamber, the first time he has noticed it. He sits in his throne and considers how to get rid of it.
On page 23, we shift to Jin’s story, which begins with a memory of being in a car as a child, driven by his parents. His mother tells him a parable about a mother who, living near a market, disapproves of her son’s decision to sell sticks on the street; living near a cemetery, she disapproves of his decision to burn incense and sing songs to his ancestors; living near a university, she approves of her son’s decision to spend all his free time reading about math, science, and history. They stay for a long time.
She finishes the story as they pull up to their new home. Jin comments on how his parents came to America around the same time and met as graduate students at San Francisco State University. For money, his father sold wigs door-to-door and his mother worked at a cannery. His father became an engineer and his mother a librarian. They moved into an apartment in San Francisco's Chinatown and stayed for nine years after Jin was born. Jin was friends with three other boys of the same age: they watched Transformers cartoons and staged battles with their robot toys.
On Sundays Jin would accompany his mother to the Chinese herbalist around the corner, where she treated her allergies. Speaking in Mandarin Chinese, the herbalist’s wife once asked Jin what he wanted to be when he grew up: he says a Transformer, and demonstrates how his toy robot transformed into a truck. Jin acknowledges it is a silly ambition, but the woman says, “It’s easy to become anything you wish, so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
The day after arriving at their new house, Jin’s teacher at Mayflower Elementary, a white woman named Mrs. Greeder, introduces him to his new third-grade class. She mispronounces his name as Jing Jang, when it is Jin Wang; she says he is from China, but he is from San Francisco. A student named Timmy says he heard Chinese people eat dogs. Greeder says to be nice, and that Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing when they came to the US. Suzy Nakamura is the only other Asian in the class. Rumors quickly circulate that she and Jin were engaged to be married at thirteen; she and Jin avoid each other as much as possible.
Jin eats alone while the white kids play together. Timmy sees Jin eating dumplings and tells him to stay away from his dog. A blond-haired boy named Greg tells Timmy to knock it off: Timmy threatens Greg but quickly backs down when Greg raises his voice. As Timmy leads Greg and their other friend away, Greg looks back forlornly at Jin. Three months later Jin makes friends with Peter Garbinsky, known as “Peter the Eater” because he picks his nose and eats the snot. Their “friendship” develops quickly after Peter forces him to give him his sandwich. Their games involve Peter tossing Jin around and making him put his mother’s bra on his head. In the winter of fifth grade, Peter goes to Pennsylvania to visit his estranged father and never returns after winter break.
With the first Monkey King section, Yang introduces several of the book’s major themes. The importance of folklore enters the story through the Monkey King character. Based on Sun Wukong, a Chinese folklore character whose origins date back to the Song Dynasty and who was featured most notably in the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King and his struggle to shed his lowly status as a monkey mirrors the struggles with identity that Jin will face.
The humiliation the Monkey King experiences causes him to become self-conscious, self-loathing, and discontent. His dissatisfaction with his identity is captured in the way he notices the scent of his own fur for the first time. This example of olfactory imagery will prompt the Monkey King to think about how to change who he is.
The narrative switches to Jin’s own origin story, setting up the structural parallels between his life and the folk tale of Sun Wukong. Born to Taiwanese and Hong Kongese parents, Jin grows up as a first-generation ethnically Chinese person. Living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Jin grows up among other American Chinese boys. Jin is oblivious to his ethnic difference, just as the Monkey King has no issue with being a monkey until he is teased for it.
The theme of transformation arises when the herbalist’s wife warns Jin that he can become anything so long as he forfeits his soul. The full meaning of her ominous words will become known later in the story when Jin transforms into Danny, sacrificing his identity in the process.
The parallels between the Monkey King and Jin continue when Jin’s parents move to a mostly white suburb. Like how the Monkey King was excluded from his dinner party in the heavens, Jin is made to feel like an outsider at his new elementary school. The theme of racial discrimination and the motif of casual racism enter the story, conveyed in the taunts Timmy levies at Jin. The casual racism also comes in the form of the less mean-spirited but equally ignorant comments Mrs. Greeder makes regarding Jin’s family and the mistakes she makes regarding his name and birthplace. Jin’s isolation is compounded by the fact that his only “friend” is a fellow outcast he is reluctant to play with, but this is his only choice for companionship.