In 'American Born Chinese,' a beloved graphic novel gets Disney-fied : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the Disney+ show American Born Chinese, Jin is an insecure Chinese-American kid just trying to get through high school when he befriends the new kid in town, Wei-Chen. Wei-Chen is actually a god on a divine quest, and he drags Jin along with him. And the two come to realize they're more alike than they ever imagined.

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In 'American Born Chinese,' a beloved graphic novel gets Disney-fied

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In the funny and clever TV show "American Born Chinese," Jin is an insecure Chinese American kid just trying to get through high school and be normal when he befriends - or gets befriended by, technically - the new kid in town, Wei-Chen. It turns out the confident Wei-Chen is actually a god on a divine quest, and he drags a not-entirely-willing Jin along with him. The two come to realize they're more alike than they ever imagined. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about the Disney+ series "American Born Chinese" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Joining me today is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Hey there, Mallory.


WELDON: And also joining us is writer and critic Walter Chaw. Welcome back, Walter.

WALTER CHAW: Hi, everybody. I'm so glad to be here.

WELDON: Great to have you. "American Born Chinese" is based on the award-winning, best-selling and very, very good graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, though the series updates and expands on that book's premise a lot. Ben Wang plays a high school kid named Jin Wang. His efforts to fit in and brave an endless parade of microaggressions from his schoolmates get upended when he becomes an unwilling TikTok meme that invokes an old, racist sitcom starring Freddy Wong, played by Ke Huy Quan. If that wasn't bad enough, Jin's parents, played by Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han, are having marital problems, and it turns out that his new friend Wei-Chen, played by Jim Liu, is actually the son of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from Chinese mythology. Wei-Chen is on a self-appointed quest to save the celestial realm with a little help from his Chinese auntie played by the great and good Michelle Yeoh. She's actually Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.

"American Born Chinese" tackles high school angst, generational trauma, familial obligations, casual racism and lots and lots and lots of kung fu. The showrunner is Kelvin Yu, who worked on "Bob's Burgers," among other things. "American Born Chinese" is now streaming on Disney+. Mallory, what'd you think?

YU: For the most part, I really enjoyed myself, even though I spent, I think, seven episodes cringing and hollering at Jin to, like, do something already. I thought it was a pretty good adaptation of the graphic novel, even though it's not a frame-by-frame recreation. Because it's not confined to 200-something pages of hand-drawn, inked and lettered comics, I think the TV show could expand on some of the characters and relationships that were really only hinted at in the book. I guess I wish that it could have been a little sharper, a little toothier in some aspects. But I did really enjoy a lot of the performances.

Some standouts for me would be Jim Liu as Wei-Chen. He's just so fabulous, and I just loved watching him. And I loved watching Daniel Wu having so much fun being the Monkey King. There's a flashback episode where you kind of see him as a young person. And I just - I loved the idea of, like, showing a character who's confident and sure of himself as a younger person and sort of where and how he became the person that he is today. Ultimately, I really enjoyed it, but I'm looking forward to talking about it more.

WELDON: Yeah. OK. You bring up a good point. It does differ markedly from the graphic novel. It's an adaptation that takes a lot of liberties. Walter, what'd you think?

CHAW: I think I'm caught somewhere with - a lot of the tropes that it brings up seem lazy to me. It's almost done in a Disney house style...


CHAW: ...That has not served them well so far, sort of like the live-action "Mulan" and "Shang-Chi." I think they lean really heavily on this idea of Asian Americans having a secret, mystical, kung fu past with ageless, immortal, dragon fathers or monkey fathers or, you know - there's a certain exoticism in it. You know, I want to shy away from the Orientalism term, but, indeed, I feel like there's a lot of shorthand here to make it more legible for an American audience, especially one that's been, you know, sort of inundated with the MCU and all of these tent-pole products that Disney is responsible for. And as much as I appreciate seeing the pantheon of Chinese gods and Chinese superheroes - indeed, you know, Sun Wukong is bedtime stories that I grew up with. My dad would read me the - you know, the "Journey To The West" manga every night. You know, all of those stories mean an incredible - a lot to me.

And when I read the Gene Yang graphic novel, it hit like a ton of bricks. It was an unbelievable experience to see that myth rolled into a story of a dorky Chinese kid who feels really bad about how he looks, and his parents didn't teach him how to use deodorant and all of this stuff. It was like, that's me, you know? When I took my homecoming date to the dance, I didn't bring her a corsage. I didn't know you did that. There was all of these things that Gene Yang brings out in his work - all of his work - that is extraordinarily specific but universal because of that specificity.

All of that's gone, I think, in this adaptation of it, to its detriment. I was actually - felt really betrayed by it, and I felt uncomfortable with having to say so because, you know, in our community, when you criticize the products of your community, often the worst critics that come after you are members of your own community that say, wait a minute, wait a minute, you know, don't bite the hand that feeds. Just be grateful to have these scraps from the table. And for me, it's like, well, I think we deserve better than this. I think this was a missed opportunity.

WELDON: Fascinating. I was really looking forward to this. I loved the book, but I knew that it was going to be Disney+, so I was expecting something Disneyfied. And for the most part, I got that. I mean, high school stuff's always going to be a tough sell to me. I barely got through it. Don't ask me to revisit it. There's going to be exceptions to that - "Buffy" because that central metaphor works so well for those first three seasons and then "Heathers," 'cause it is black as pitch and desiccated like my heart and then "PEN15" because, you know, the accuracy, the chilling accuracy. I thought this was a much lighter, all-ages, Disneyfied version of all three of those things. I like the show a lot. I think it threads a very difficult needle plotwise, balancing the high school stuff with the god stuff, but I'm not sure the final episode maintains the right fuel mixture. I think that final episode veers into the YA - very familiar YA stuff with the romance and a Scooby Gang, and, like, characters who have gotten no screen time, like Ben's estranged friend Anuj, played by Mahi Alam. You know, suddenly he's in this mix here. But that's a quibble. How do you guys think the show navigates those two storylines, the parallels it draws?

YU: I mean, I'm always a fan of, you know, the supernatural happening on top of the mundane. Like, I just really like the dichotomy of that. So Wei-Chen's first fight with Pigsy in the school was like - I spent the whole time being like, you're going to destroy the school? Is this going to be referenced? Is the school just going to reset magically? And they do kind of mention, like, you know, we were vandalized. And we know, as the audience, that it's because there's this, like, supernatural storyline happening in this school at the same time. The sort of juxtaposition between this really sort of epic quest storyline and my destiny, etc., etc., paralleling Jin's passivity was really interesting to me.

There's a scene in a bowling alley, and I really liked the way that that episode cut between this really brutal fight and also the sort of mundane, human dramas of my parents having a really - what sounds like marriage-ending fight, or my crush is throwing me a birthday party. I really liked that sort of energy, and I appreciated whenever we got that hint of heaven interacting with earth. It just helped me ground myself a little more.

CHAW: I think I was never able to get over those YA elements that you're talking about. The idea that the crush is so into him in return and there's no, like, real social pressure for her not to date him, and there's no consequences for him trying to assimilate in a different way. You know, he steals a jacket in the first episode, and that's never resolved. There's a scene later, I think in the fourth or fifth episode, when the mother is cleaning his room and picking up laundry, which is when I thought, OK, now she's going to find the jacket. Now we're going to have, really, a comeuppance. And there's another subplot where the mother tries to start her own business. There's another subplot about the father being too afraid to ask for a raise, but he and his boss have, you know, a shared love of Bon Jovi. There's no resolution to any of these things, and they don't necessarily require resolution.

And the social part of this is gone. He's just sort of an ordinary, awkward kid. He's not specifically an Asian awkward kid. They're not making fun of what he eats. They're not making fun of his name. They're not calling him slurs. Even in the book, there's a moment where a teacher makes an off-color joke about his ex-wife. And in the show, he makes the same joke. But all of a sudden, someone in the classroom says, that's insensitive. And the teacher's like, oh, I do apologize for my insensitivity in this moment. And that's part of the Disneyfication of it, I think. In doing so, it almost begins to feel patronizing to me.

In the book, the sitcom character is called Chin-Kee, and in the show, he's called Freddy. The extent to which you're trying to protect me from the things that I've experienced my whole life feels very patronizing. You don't want me to hear that someone's calling me a name or calling me whatever and saying I shouldn't date white kids, and you're trying to protect me from that? Where were you 40 years ago, man?

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

CHAW: I mean, if we're going to be making a show called "American Born Chinese," what does this actually have to do with being an American-born Chinese? You're doing this - the same stuff over and over and over again and pretending that it's for us, and it's not. It's for you. It's fulfilling these expectations of the dragon mother who is badgering the husband to be - speak up, but the husband is meek and quiet and afraid and - all of this stuff, these are Western tropes. And I'm tired of seeing that, and I'm tired of being told that this is the way that we are, which is not to say - you know, I'm not criticizing the performances.

I'm not criticizing the people. It's like, I thought the kid that played Jin, you know, Ben Wang, is fantastic. I thought that - you know, Chin Han is one of my favorite actors. I love it whenever he shows up in something. Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu - it's always good to see them, even though their characters are created wholly for this show and sort of made to do poop and vomit jokes and Ikea jokes. So it's like, this is actually the lowest form of sitcom writing attached to something that was really important to our culture. And that's painful to see for me.

WELDON: Now, Walter, I will point out this show attempts to invoke race. And I agree. Both of you are saying it does so in a very toothless way. But, you know, he has his friends constantly mispronounce his last name. They do make racist references. And his reaction to that I thought was really interesting. His reaction to that is to defend them and to downplay his identity at every turn. And that impulse, on the surface, is something universal 'cause a lot of folks can identify with just keeping your head down and wanting to get through high school. But talk to me about how that played with y'all.

YU: I actually really related to Jin. I grew up in a place where I wasn't the only Chinese person in my school, but I guess I grew up under the whole, like, model minority way of thinking, where you don't rock the boat. You keep your head down. You work hard. The attention that you get is just from putting your head down and being a good worker. So I related to his impulse and his instinct to be like, no, no, no, no, no, it's OK. I am also a horrible people pleaser. And so I really related to the impulse for him to be like, OK, I won't date Amelia.

There's a conversation where one of the white soccer kids that he's trying to befriend tells him, don't ask this white girl out. You're not the right person for her. He says something like that, and Jin just sort of shrugs and is like, OK, fine, man, I won't. He stands on that table, and he's like, I don't have a problem with this. You know, these people aren't being racist to me. And that, to me, felt like someone who's just at the beginning of really realizing and understanding where he is as a nonwhite person in a white America. I related and understood where he was coming from, even though, as an adult now, I was like, come on, man. This isn't OK.

And I do see, too, like, Walter, your criticism of, you know, some of the, like, language - that scene where the teacher says something, you know, slightly offensive and someone calls him out on that. I think it didn't hit me the same way that it hit you because I was kind of thinking of it as more, this is where they're bringing in an updated version of this show because I could see a world in which a high school student would say, hey, that's not right, even if that high school student doesn't really understand what's not right about that comment.

I think some of that, to me, felt like they were really working hard on updating some of the issues and themes that were in the graphic novel to a 2023 high school audience. Maybe that is to the show's detriment. I don't know. I really liked his journey. For what it's worth, I appreciated seeing an Asian kid who's being pressured by his parents, but they're not, like, overbearing on him. You know, his mom seems to be very much like, yeah, play soccer. As long as you study and work hard, that's fine. It was a slightly different flavor - to me, at least - of the pushing your kid conversation that a lot of us in the immigrant Asian community have.

WELDON: Walter, let me get your reaction to the scene where I think this show is firing on all cylinders, where it's really working. That's a scene between Jin's parents and the principal of the school.


JENNIFER IRWIN: (As Principal Finney) I just think that kids like Jin, you know, might be starved for more positive reinforcement.

YANN YANN YEO: (As Christine Wang) Kids like Jin?

IRWIN: (As Principal Finney) I also read that families like yours are very achievement based, which is good. It's very good up to a point.

WELDON: And that's when I thought, you know, yeah, gods, monkeys, kung fu - this is the heart of the show. This is what's driving the show because it's not cut and dry. The parents' marriage is on the rocks, but they're trying to put up a good show. And the principal is coming at them with this very well-intentioned but unthinkingly racist ideas.

Everybody's a little bit wrong in that scene. The parents aren't being truthful, but why in God's name would they be truthful to this person? And what is this principle giving them except received knowledge and judgment? And you go any broader, and you play it for laughs alone. But by calibrating it the way they did, I think it really hits. I think you can feel everybody's foot in that scene, right? They're putting their foot in it - the actors, the writers, the producers. You can feel it.

CHAW: It works for me in the way that scenes like that always work for me. And I'm framing it like that because I've seen that a lot, where the administrator is tone deaf and clueless and says all of the worst things, and it is - you know, has the bias that they have not examined, and it comes out in what they say. It's always resolved in a certain way. You know, there's a cathartic moment for us as an audience because we are sitting here recognizing the wrongness of what she's saying. But it feels like - it felt like a straw-man scene to me.

And like a lot of these moments in the show, it felt overly expository. I don't need you to tell me that this is wrong. I need you to represent it. I need to see this. And in fact, you know, when the soccer player who memes - the old show with Ke Huy Quan and - is he really that bad, though? Ultimately, I don't - he didn't feel like that much of a bully to me. He felt like another one of these - so it's like, there's no teeth to it. I think, Mallory, that's the term that you used, is, like, it's toothless. I'm sort of struggling to crystallize my thoughts about how empty it all kind of feels. It's really painful for what we went through - what I went through personally in high school - to be trivialized in something like this.

The book doesn't do that.


CHAW: All of these conversations we're having now in our culture don't really do that. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is extraordinarily emotionally acute and precise about the pain of generational trauma. This is very vague and, you know, wanting to please and washed clean of a lot of the cultural specificity that is important, I think, about a work like this, when you're saying, I'm going to make a show at Disney called "American Born Chinese." That comes with a lot of, I think, pitfalls.


CHAW: And I believe that the show kind of falls in all of them. The graphic novel - there's a line in it that says, it's easy to become anything you want so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul. I think the great irony of the show is that it is everything that it wants to be - the big-budget kung fu spectacular or whatever - and in the process, they forfeited their soul. And that's the irony of it. This was something special, and it's no longer that.

WELDON: Yeah. I agree. The differences from the book to make it broader are its undoing. Even though I thought that scene between the parents and the principal worked a lot more than you did, I contrast that with a scene in which the Ke Huy Quan character finally gets his moment - right? - finally gets his monologue. Been waiting for this the entire series.


KE HUY QUAN: (As Freddy Wong) When I say I wanted to play a hero, I mean, I just wanted to be someone who goes on a journey, shows some courage, helps others. A hero can be a person with superpowers, or they can just be - can be someone who fights for something that matters.

WELDON: And it's also clear that there's a lot of, you know, intention behind that. That's also where the heart of the show lies. But the execution is so direct that it kind of feels like Linus calling for the spotlight in "Charlie Brown Christmas." Like, that's what the - Christmas is really about, Charlie Brown. That's when I see your point, Walter.

YU: Yeah.

WELDON: That's what I see the directness. Mallory, what do you think?

YU: I agree. I thought Ke Huy Quan did a really good job, and I know that he himself was really worried about taking this role on. You know, he said he was scared of the Freddy Wong character. I think he did a really good job with, you know, the lines that he was given. I appreciated the sort of metatextual layer of this actor specifically being the one to say these lines because we know that he is basically describing his own career. And I appreciated seeing that he was given, you know, a little more agency. We could hear and see in his own head. That scene, though, was so heavy-handed, it almost took me out. Like, I found myself thinking cynically, like, OK, this is your, like, woke lesson of the episode, right?

I'm not really sure how you get around that because this character - you know, having read interviews with Kelvin Yu and with Gene Luen Yang, this character, the way that they adapted cousin Chin-Kee was a big worry for them, and it was Kelvin's idea to kind of bring in an actor playing this role and the way that this actor feels about that as a way of kind of touching on the similar themes that that character was touching on in the graphic novel. I can see why that would be really worrying for them to adapt. You know, Gene has talked about how he didn't want clips from the show to become - to get taken out of context and memed (ph), like what happens in the show. And I kind of liked the metatextual conversation that was happening there. Did I really need a line that was like, to every kid who is watching this, you don't have to be a punchline?


QUAN: (As Jamie) And I hope that there's a kid out there watching this who feels he doesn't have to be a punchline, who believes that he could be the hero.

YU: Like, Ke Huy Quan could have just looked directly at the camera, and I was almost expecting him to. And I don't really like when I am being told this is the point of the show, and this is the point of the scene. The more effective scene for me was seeing Ke teaching a class about Shakespeare. And the way that he read those lines, I was like, I want to see more of this character.


YU: I want to see more of Jamie, the teacher, instead of Freddy Wong, the racist stereotype. I like these characters and this world enough that I would rejoin, you know, for Jin's junior year or whatever, but I think that they would need to go really dig into, what does it mean to be an American-born Chinese person as opposed to an American-born Desi person or Vietnamese or Taiwanese even? And, you know, we were talking a little bit before we started recording about one character's Taiwanese ethnicity is sort of erased from the show. And I think that that really - again, when you see the sort of outside pressures on some of these storytelling decisions, it can be really frustrating and, like Walter said, painful. It means something for a character to be Taiwanese versus Chinese. And when you erase that, you're sort of saying, well, they're all the same.

WELDON: Yeah. And just a little context - Wei-Chen is Chinese in the show, but in the book, he's Taiwanese. And perhaps one reason for that is China is a big market for Hollywood and carries a lot of influence. And certainly, there's a history of American studios, including Disney, self-censoring like that so as not to offend the Chinese government. OK, Walter, go ahead.

CHAW: I was just going to say, like, it's every immigrant's experience. If you want to be considered to be white in this culture, you turn your back. I turned my back on my culture. I betrayed it.

YU: I did, too.

CHAW: And it's horrible, and I have the second half of my life to pay for it. And so this is absolutely fine. But as soon as I finished reading the book, I gave it to my wife. I gave it to my kids, who are too young to read it, really. But I gave it to them, and I walked them through it. I'm not going to recommend this to anybody. Whatever is good about "American Born Chinese" has nothing to do with what was important about the book. And I guess that's where I land on the show.

YU: For me, the best thing about this show - one of the things that I appreciated the most was, after every episode, just seeing who directed this, how many sort of Asian names were on the screen as part of the crew, as directors, as writers, as showrunners, as the show creator. For me, there is a progress that has been made here in that we're seeing a crew that is made up of at least many Asians and Asian Americans. When I talk about wanting to see diversity and representation, that's what I want to see. I want to see people who are part of the making of the thing, not just the actors on screen.

To Walter's point, I want to see that we are the ones making these stories. The difficulty of this is that it's harder than ever for independent filmmakers, auteurs to create these stories without the, like, Disney overlords - right? - the corporate overlords who are like, we need a big audience. We need the streaming numbers. We need blah, blah, blah and X, Y, Z and don't really think about, you know, what does it mean to this community, and why are we adapting this now? Rather than just adapting it, how are you going to move this story forward in a way that is toothy and not patronizing? That's the crux of the problem here is that wanting control of our stories is all well and good, but what about the system around it?

WELDON: OK. Well, I mean, I think you heard what we think about "American Born Chinese." We want to hear what you think about it. Find us at That brings us to the end of our show. Mallory Yu, Walter Chaw, I want to thank you both for a really chewy, great discussion. The show might be toothless, but the talk was very chewy. Thank you very much.

YU: Always a pleasure.

CHAW: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: We want to take a moment to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support for NPR. If you haven't signed up yet and you want to show your support and listen to this show without any sponsor breaks at all, head over to, or visit the link in our show notes. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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