‘Othering’ message packs a punch in American Born Chinese

Courtesy Disney
Sydney Taylor and Ben Wang star in a scene from American Born Chinese, streaming now on Disney+.

By Lindsay Steele
Now Streaming

American Born Chinese (Disney)

Genre: Action, Fantasy, Teen Drama

Streaming service: Disney+


Rating: TV-PG


Summary: Jin Wang, an average teenager, juggles his high school social life with his home life. When he meets a new student on the first day of the school year, even more worlds collide as Jin is unwittingly entangled in a battle of Chinese mythological gods.

Synopsis: American Born Chinese offers viewers an intimate look at the concept of othering — a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group.

We see this othering play out through the eyes of teenager Jin Wang (played by Ben Wang). Wang attends a primarily white high school and wants nothing more than to blend in. Jin is embarrassed when his soccer teammates order Chinese takeout for his birthday, assuming it is his favorite (it isn’t). Though the gesture is well-intended, Jin feels self-conscious about his race. He doesn’t say anything to his classmates but he internalizes it as evidence that they see him as different. Perhaps if they’d asked him what he wanted to eat for his birthday or just ordered pizza, he may have walked away from the party feeling seen, not “othered.”

He doesn’t quite fit in with his Asian-American classmates, either. When Jin unwittingly becomes part of a viral, racist meme, other Asian-Americans at the school begin protesting and expect Jin to speak up. He is uncomfortable with the attention and just wants it to die down. His classmates are disappointed by Jin’s reluctance to be the face of the issue.

Jin feels like his Taiwanese heritage makes him stand out for all the wrong reasons — although he becomes more comfortable in his skin as the series progresses. Still, these interactions show the consequences of othering and assuming that all people of a minority group think alike or that one person’s experience speaks for all of them.

Meanwhile, recent Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan turns in a heartfelt, moving and somewhat self-referential performance as actor-turned-educator Jamie Yao. Both were typecast as racial caricatures early in their careers and left Hollywood because of a lack of meaningful, well-rounded roles for Asian-American men at the time.

Jamie’s most popular character — a bumbling neighbor on a 90’s sitcom — has experienced a resurgence due to a meme featuring the character’s catchphrase, “What could go ‘Wong?’” It’s the same meme that has made Jin the laughing stock of his school. Though the two never meet, Jin watches Jamie’s appearance on the sitcom’s reunion special and relates to what he has to say —that he wants to be something other than a “punch line.”

The main storylines pack a punch and I believe Quan deserves an Emmy nomination for his performance. However, the martial arts/fantasy mashup storyline that accompanies it is, in my opinion, a weak spot. One highlight is Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh as the goddess Guanyin; her stellar acting and comedic timing transcend the cheesy script.

While the martial arts/fantasy storyline is based on the show’s source material — a novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang — it needed more finesse, especially since the on-earth storylines and acting performances are so strong.

Discussion questions:

Have you ever felt different from your peers? How did that perception affect your life and self-image?

Can you think of a time in which you, perhaps well-intentioned, made an assumption about someone based on their race or heritage? If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

Read Galatians 3:28. What does it teach us about the concept of othering?

(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at steele@davenportdiocese.org or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)

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