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'American Born Chinese' Author Talks About His Multicultural Life

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Gene Luen Yang is a National Book Award-nominated graphic novelist. He is the author of "American Born Chinese," "The Shadow Hero," "Secret Coders" and other comics. (Courtesy of Gene Luen Yang)

Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang takes on questions of race, identity and assimilation in his work. As it turns out, he's also exploring those ideas at home.

Yang is the author of "The Shadow Hero," about a character who many consider to be the first Asian-American superhero. Yang has something of a superhero status himself in the world of comics. He’s authored two National Book Award nominees, "Boxers & Saints" and "American Born Chinese." (Yang's latest book is called "Secret Coders.")

We caught up with him by email to talk about the cultural mashup in his home.

Q: KQED's "So Well Spoken" is taking up the idea of multiracial families, and you've said you're in one. What kind is yours?


A: My marriage is multicultural, not multiracial. I am Chinese-American and my wife is Korean-American. We have a lot in common. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same high school. We are both Roman Catholic. We both attended a college in the University of California system. (I went to Cal and she went to UC San Diego.) We both worked as teachers for years.

As far as marriages go, ours is fairly low conflict. We have our seasons, but overall we’re stable. When we do have conflicts, however, they tend to stem from differences in culture.

Gene Luen Yang is the author of The Shadow Hero, about a character who many consider to be the first Asian-American superhero. Yang is also the author of American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints.
Gene Luen Yang is the author of "The Shadow Hero," about a character who many consider to be the first Asian-American superhero. Yang is also the author of "American Born Chinese "and "Boxers & Saints." (Courtesy of Gene Luen Yang)

Q: Does being with someone from another culture have particular challenges? How does that play out in your home?

A: As far as cultures go, China and Korea are fairly close. I mean, they share a border. There’s been a lot of cultural exchange over the centuries. There’s a sizable Korean minority in China, and the same is true for the Chinese in Korea.

You’d figure cultural differences between a Korean-American and a Chinese-American wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they are. Early on, my wife and I decided that we would attend a Korean-American church and send our kids to weekend Chinese-language school. That’s how we’d stay in touch with both cultures.

But then when we actually lived it out, all these unexpected feelings came up. My wife felt uneasy that our kids didn’t know how to speak Korean. I felt uneasy that my kids weren’t growing up with the same Chinese traditions as I did in my home church.

I don’t know if there’s a good solution to that uneasiness. Wall Street Journal [columnist] Jeff Yang talks about how the culture of an immigrant community is like water in a bucket. When the water gets passed from the bucket of one generation to the next, some of it spills out. If you marry someone with the exact same cultural background, less water spills out.

I guess my wife and I just have to make peace with the inevitable spillage. And, perhaps more hopefully, we can encourage our kids to see themselves as part of the emerging Asian-American subculture.

Q: How can these differences be funny sometimes?

A: In Korean restaurants, they sometimes have these flat, metal, beautifully crafted chopsticks. I still can’t get used to them. I know it’s stupid. It’s shameful for an Asian-American guy to complain about chopsticks of any kind.

Q: A Supreme Court ruling made interracial marriage fully legal at the federal level in the 1960s. That means some people living today were alive when it was still illegal to marry someone of another race. What do you say about that?

A: Of course people of different races and cultures ought to be able to marry each other. Humans are humans. Also, culture is fluid, and the boundaries between cultures are often blurry.

Even so, spouses of different cultures ought to go into their marriages with their eyes open. Culture is real. Culture is a thing.  And something kicks in after you have kids. Maybe it’s biological? I don’t know. But cultural habits that didn’t seem all that important before kids can suddenly feel very, very important after kids.

Q: Any advice? Anything to add?

A: If you’re in a multicultural or multiracial relationship, talk it out. You have to treat culture as an important part of who you are, because it is. It’s as important in a marriage as money, as time, as intimacy. Don’t treat culture as something superfluous.

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