Kid stands on a school lunch table with fist in the air
Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

“American Born Chinese” Series Cast, Creators on How the Show Navigates Chinese American Experiences With Nuance

“This is a story about a kid who happens to be of Chinese descent, and he’s trying to figure out who he is.”

Gene Luen Yang will be the first to admit that he resisted making a screen adaptation of American Born Chinese. After many years of printing his own comics and selling stapled copies at local stores and conventions, the little-known cartoonist published the seminal graphic novel in 2006, becoming a National Book Award finalist and winning the American Library Association’s prestigious Michael L. Printz Award (among many other accolades). Combining the modern, coming-of-age story of a Chinese American teen with characters from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the novel — told across three interconnected timelines — attempts to use the idea of being caught between worlds as a metaphor for the cultural struggle that many Asian Americans have faced for generations.

Like most successful authors, Yang, now a frequent guest speaker at schools across the country, received multiple offers in the intervening years to adapt his career-defining work, but he faced both internal and external resistance. Growing up in the ’80s, Yang knew that Hollywood didn’t always have an appetite for Asian-led stories. But on a more personal level, the author had reservations about how Chin-Kee, the deliberately offensive character that is an amalgamation of the most harmful and racist stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans, would be translated from the page to the screen.

“I was always freaked out that if it were ever to get adapted, clips of that character would show up completely decontextualized on YouTube, and that would be the exact opposite of the point of the character in the book,” Yang tells Teen Vogue. His concerns weren’t exactly unfounded, considering the industry’s troubling history of Asian representation (or, in some cases, misrepresentation), but those fears were assuaged early in the development process of American Born Chinese, which premieres May 24 on Disney+.

Developed by Kelvin Yu and directed by the likes of Destin Daniel Cretton and Lucy Liu, the family-friendly action comedy series follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an average teenager who crosses paths with a new student named Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) and unwittingly becomes embroiled in an epic battle of Chinese mythological gods. Michelle Yeoh, fresh off her historic win at the Academy Awards, plays Guanyin a.k.a. the Goddess of Mercy, while Daniel Wu, one of the most recognizable actors in Asia, plays Sun Wukong a.k.a. the Monkey King (and the father of Wei-Chen, in a departure from Journey to the West).

Yu, an executive producer and writer on Bob’s Burgers who also appeared on Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None, admits he was equal parts excited and terrified at the prospect of expanding the fantastical world that Yang had created. Although he wanted to maintain the book’s distinctive tone, Yu knew he needed to bring the story to the present day. Drawing from his own early acting experiences, he created Freddy Wong (Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan), an accident-prone character on a popular ’90s sitcom who was frequently the butt of every joke.

“I was so reluctant to take on this role just because of what people would think about it, but I realized that it was important to show the audience today what it was like to be an Asian actor back in the late ’80s and the early ’90s,” says Quan, who quit acting for 20 years before returning in last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. (His Oscar-nominated co-star, Stephanie Hsu, also guest stars in American Born Chinese.) “It’s practically putting a mirror up to yourself and showing the audience what that was like.”

Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja
Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

Part of that audience includes Jin, who feels mortified when a classmate shares a video of him crashing into a school display case with Freddy’s cringey catchphrase, “What could go Wong?” Throughout the eight-episode first season, Jin attempts to balance his tense home life (where he can often hear his parents, Christine and Simon, played by Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han, arguing in Mandarin through a wall) with his burgeoning popularity at school (where he struggles to fit in and harbors a crush on a popular girl in his grade).

It’s an ever-changing balance that Ben Wang, who plays the unlikely hero, knows all too well. Growing up in Minnesota, Wang never thought he could lead his own show, largely due to the dearth of Asian male leads on television. But when he received the audition material for American Born Chinese, the young actor had a visceral reaction, immediately recognizing parts of his own experience mirrored in the protagonist. “The first episode starts with a scene with him and his mom, and he’s talking with her one way, and then [when] he goes to school and he’s with his friends, he talks another way,” he says about Jin’s ability to code-switch. “When we were shooting that scene, in my head, I was like, ‘He has to be a different person, because that’s what I did and that’s what I still do.’”

For all its high-octane fight sequences, American Born Chinese truly packs a punch when it zeroes in on the specificities of the Chinese American experience — the cuisine, the music, the natural use of Chinese and English in the household, the clash of Eastern and Western values, and the importance of family and filial piety (even for mythical gods). “Shows usually don’t get this specific, so if you’re not familiar with this culture, it’s something new and fresh,” Wang says. “It feels like you’re getting a real look into a world that maybe you aren’t very used to.”

Yu and Yang, along with the rest of their team of executive producers, made it a point to hire Chinese and Asian Americans to work on both sides of the camera. Cretton, in particular, was also adamant about casting some actors who spoke accented English. “I think it’s such a powerful statement to put people who speak English with an accent on television or film, to show that it’s not indicative of lesser education, and to normalize it,” Yu says.

Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

The show is arguably at its most potent, however, when it presents the microaggressions that immigrants and their descendants face in corporate and school settings. Being denied opportunities for career advancement — an issue known as the “bamboo ceiling” — and having to deal with mispronounced names and racially charged remarks all “feel like truthful situations” for Asian Americans, Wang says. “Because this is a show where the main character is [someone like] Jin, for the first time we can examine these situations, and even people who haven’t experienced [these microaggressions] maybe start to understand, ‘Oh, I can understand how that can be uncomfortable.’”

Although he acknowledges that his first job as a storyteller is “to entertain,” Yu feels that audiences are getting smarter and smarter with the content they consume on a regular basis, and “they’re looking for some authentic experience on the screen,” he says. “And for better or for worse, they can tell when you’re lying, when you’re editing yourself, when you’re catering or pandering to them, and they want the truth.”

For instance, at one point in the pilot, Jin asks his mother if they can go water skiing, to which she responds, “We are not water ski people, Jin.” For people of color, that kind of statement takes on an uncomfortable double meaning.

“[The water ski line] comes from me asking my mom once why my dad was a little bit held up in middle management, and her response was, ‘He doesn’t play golf,’” Yu explains. “I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about, but there’s so much in that response, and she’s trying to say something without saying it out loud. What she’s trying to say is, ‘He’s not white, man.’ It’s not as overt as maybe 50 years ago and not as overt maybe to some other immigrant communities, but it’s still there. It’s microaggressions. It’s discrimination. So we’re trying to get that in there without hitting it over the head.”

Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

Following the unprecedented success of films such as Everything Everywhere All at OnceCrazy Rich Asians, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsAmerican Born Chinese arrives at a time when this kind of cultural representation in Hollywood has never been hotter. But while the show tells a specific story about a working-class Chinese American family not unlike his own, Yu insists that this coming-of-age tale, at its core, is universal.

“This is a story about a kid who happens to be of Chinese descent, and he’s trying to figure out who he is,” explains Yu. “It doesn’t matter what race you are or where you grew up. Identity formation is painful. When you are growing up like us, your parents call you something different than your friends. You speak a different language at home than you do at school. You act differently when you sit down at the dinner table than you do at school, and it can be incredibly dissonant and terrifying to try to figure out who you are. So we do our best to wrap it all in a fun, lighthearted experience, but at the core of it is a real, human journey.”