Racial struggles and stereotypes
According to Min Hyoung Song, American Born Chinese possesses strong themes of racial stereotypes, particularly American stereotypes of the Chinese and other East Asian ethnicities. The primary example of these stereotypes is Chin-Kee, who is the embodiment of the term "coolie," a nineteenth-century racial slur for unskilled Chinese workers. According to Chaney, he is "an incarnation of the 'Yellow Peril' era of racism" which Song defines as "slant-eyes, short stature, sallow skin, predictably Chinese clothing, claw-like fingertips, and long menacing queue". In addition, Chin-Kee continually switches his "L's" for "R's" and vice versa during speech. The American roots of Chin-Kee's stereotypes are emphasized by the style of the illustrations, which are drawn to simulate an American television show. Song mentions that "[t]o emphasize further that this is an image originally formalized in newspapers and popular entertainment and later largely disseminated through the growth of popular mass media, the words "clap clap clap" line the entire bottom of the panel...This, and the words "ha ha ha," are likewise repeated in other panels, replicating the canned laughter and applause of television sit-coms." Just as the media that have enforced these stereotypes have changed, so have some of the stereotypes themselves. Chin-Kee does not only represent a version of nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, but also of the more contemporary stereotype that all Asians make exceptional students. During class with Danny, Chin-Kee knows the answer to every question, no matter if the subject is U.S. Government, History, Anatomy, Algebra, or Spanish.
Chin-Kee's academic ability brings to light what Cheryl Gnomes describes as a misguided distinction between "good" stereotypes and "bad" stereotypes. Gnomes mentions that a seemingly "good stereotype" such as Chin-Kee's stellar academic performance is still a negative stereotype overall, because if an Asian student is struggling with a particular academic subject and is believed (and/or expected) to be naturally gifted in the subject, the stereotyped student will feel pressured to perform and fear asking for help.
Chaney argues that the Monkey King serves as a metaphor for minority races and/or ethnicities, particularly those who shun their racial or ethnic backgrounds in order to assimilate into the majority culture. The Monkey King is not allowed into the celestial dinner party because he is a monkey, and therefore inherently inferior in the eyes of the other deities. When he is rejected, he is determined to prove to the world that he is more than just a Monkey, and masters the "four disciplines of invulnerability" in order to become "The Great Sage."
Transformation and understanding identity
The primary characters of American Born Chinese undergo phases of identity crises that are coupled with some sort of mental or physical transformation(s). Chaney states that the novel "celebrates transformations of identity by way of creaturely alterity. Put another way, Yang's characters become not simply other than what they are, but the other that they are." Transforming toys are introduced very early in the narrative to foreground this theme, and the narrative structure itself transforms in the final act, making this a theme not only of the characters but a key element of the way the story is told.
The Monkey King desires to be recognized as a powerful deity, and more than simply a monkey. Through meditation and practicing Kung-Fu, he is transformed into The Great Sage. Chaney argues that for readers, the use of an animal character like the Monkey King within graphic novels and literature in general allows an understanding of human identity, often more than any other type of character. He argues that the use of an animal character with human characteristics, particularly pathos, simultaneously invokes within the reader the Latin warnings of memento mori and memento bestie ("remember your mortality" and "remember you are animal"). According to Chaney, when characteristics generally considered to be human are given to the Monkey King, readers identify with their human identity more than with the human characters of the novel, such as Jin Wang.
Later in the novel, the Monkey King transforms, or disguises himself into Chin-Kee, Danny's cousin, in order to reveal Danny his true identity as Jin Wang. Fu argues that the Monkey King's transformation into Chin-Kee is a representation of "[t]he legendary trickster figure [that] has been repeatedly re-imagined by Chinese American writers as a source of cultural strength, a symbol of subversion and resistance, and a metaphor for cross-cultural and interracial negotiation." The Monkey King in Yang's version of the classic tale does not use his trickery so much for rebellion as for helping Jin Wang explore and accept himself and identify with his culture.
Jin Wang "struggles to survive exclusion and racist bullying in his search for an identity in a predominantly white suburban school". To deal with his crisis of identity he transforms himself into "Danny," a white boy who is the protagonist of the third narrative of the novel. Ultimately, his crisis is only deepened when he has to deal the grotesque representation of Chinese stereotypes that his cousin, Chin-Kee displays. Chin-Kee turns out to be the Monkey King. Jin Wang (disguised/transformed into Danny) has been taught to hate about his own culture via racist American stereotypes. When his true identity is revealed, the Monkey King tells Jin Wang that he used the disguise to serve as Jin Wang's conscience, not as a punishment. Ultimately, Jin Wang begins to accept his own identity and dismisses his alter-ego, Danny.
Wei-Chen Sun is actually the Monkey King's eldest son, sent to earth in human form as an emissary for Tze-Yo-Tzuh. His test of virtue is to spend forty years in the mortal world while remaining free of human vice. When he initially arrives to Jin Wang's school he is "presented as a nerdy but fearless recent immigrant from Taiwan." After Jin kisses Suzy Nakamura and Jin and Wei-Chen have a falling out, Wei-Chen transforms into an "angry and despondent Asian American hipster" and gives up his mission for Tze-Yo-Tzuh. Despite Wei-Chen's multiple transformations, hints of his identity as a monkey are subtly and blatantly represented throughout the story. During the scene with Amelia in the biology lab, Wei-Chen has an affinity to the teacher's lipstick-wearing monkey, who will not leave him alone. Wei-Chen can easily recognize that the monkey is actually a male, just as the monkey can actually recognize that Wei-Chen is a monkey himself. When Jin tells Wei-Chen that he has spoken to Wei-Chen's father (the Monkey King), a panel depicting Wei-Chen's true identity as a monkey juxtaposes his hipster human form in the next panel. No matter what transformation Wei-Chen takes, he cannot dismiss his true identity as a monkey.