For years, the English curriculum has consisted of literary works ranging from poetry, plays, novels, and screenplays. A major goal of the department is to expose students to many forms of literature, specifically those that challenge them intellectually and provide space for discussion amongst classmates. The English Department recently replaced one of the works meant to spur such discussion, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese.
The novel consists of three seemingly unrelated tales that come together in the end to talk about the main character embracing his Chinese identity in the face of cultural assimilation. Yang, a second-generation Asian-American, employs numerous stereotypes of Chinese culture and people in his text and illustrations. To Yang, these exaggerated stereotypes force readers to confront the severity of racism towards Asians in American culture, and in some instances, he even feels they may not have gone far enough.
“One of the regrets that I have with the book is I would try to exaggerate the Cousin Chin-Kee character even more,” said Yang during an interview with PBS’ Joshua Barajas in 2016.
Nevertheless, the novel’s stereotypes have not been positively received by members of the Asian community at Haverford, and the graphic novel’s inclusion in the English I readings has even been questioned in the past by one of the school’s former teachers. This past October, Quinn Luong ’22, with the support of the Pan-Asian Alliance and Diversity Alliance, published a critique of the novel, and the English department chose to take a closer look.
In his piece, Luong defines the aspects of Yang’s graphic novel that make it “difficult to read and wildly uncomfortable for Asian-American students.” He further described how the content and style of the novel do not match with its intended audience age of fourteen-to-fifteen year-old boys, a concern echoed by other students.
“It felt like our voices were being heard.”Ryan Ngo ’21
“I didn’t think it was an effective book for at least freshman to be reading,” Sixth Form Pan-Asian Alliance member Ryan Ngo said. “If we were going to read it, I felt it would be a lot more productive to read it later on as an upperclassman when you understand that level of satire and use of imagery.”
“[All the English teachers] read [Luong’s] piece and then the full upper school department talked about it,” English Chair Mr. Thomas Stambaugh said. “I drafted part of a response and worked with English colleagues on capturing our complicated feelings about the work. English I teachers Mr. Louie Brown and Mr. Keith Belson offered particularly valuable perspectives. Since the students had appealed to us in writing it seemed like the appropriate way to respond was in writing.”
Soon after Luong’s work was published in The Index, all eleven upper school department members signed their names to the response letter in which they acknowledged the pain that American Born Chinese had brought upon Asian students and vowed to sit down with members of the Pan-Asian Alliance to discuss solutions. In the meantime, the English Department decided to experiment with a different graphic novel.
In January, the two groups sat down together in a virtual meeting. The English Department had read and reviewed three of the alternative graphic novels Luong recommended and several other possible texts, and settled on They Called Us Enemy by George Takei and Harmony Becker. The meeting, by many accounts, was productive and eye-opening, particularly for members of the English Department who were able to hear how uncomfortable some students were with elements of American Born Chinese and how, going forward, teachers could be even more deliberate when focusing on sensitive subjects such as painful stereotypes.
“It felt like our voices were being heard, and I felt that the hard work we were putting in was paying off,” Ngo said.
Ngo is proud of the work being spearheaded by many of the younger members in the Pan-Asian Alliance and Diversity Alliance such as Luong and others. He is glad to be part of a school and group that empowers these younger members of the community to make positive changes in the future.