As I sat down to watch the new Disney series adaptation of Gene Yang's bestselling graphic novel, American Born Chinese, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The term, commonly shortened to "ABC", was something I grew up hearing, and being one myself, it piqued my curiosity to see how the show would explore its meaning.
In the action comedy series, we meet Jin Wang (played by Ben Wang), a typical teenager trying to navigate between high school and his immigrant household. As Jin juggles with peer pressure, crushes, and soccer practice, he becomes entangled on a mission to help a mysterious “new foreign student”—who is revealed to be from another realm—search for a missing scroll to save heaven and Earth from destruction. Captivating fight scenes unfold throughout the series, bringing action, comedy, and most of all, heart, to this adventure-filled show.
American Born Chinese explores and reimagines Chinese mythology by introducing known figures to the backdrop of a modern high school setting, including Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King. The series also serves as a reunion for cast members from the Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once as Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and James Hong make appearances this season.
In a conversation with Timid, Wang discusses his experience growing up as an Asian American in a small town in Minnesota and how the show has resonated with him.
Ben Wang: I immigrated to the States when I was six years old, and I didn't speak any English. I learned it in one summer by watching TV for nine hours a day, nonstop. I would wake up and sit in front of the TV and watch until I was tired at night. In the beginning, I didn't understand any of the shows, but my favorite thing was the infomercials because they would just keep talking, then it would repeat. It's a great language-learning platform. Some dude will shout at you for five minutes about the ShamWow and you start picking up words, like, “Ah, it's ‘absorbent’. I think I know what that means” because he's demonstrating at the same time.
I would film myself making infomercials with my grandfather’s camcorder. That medium was my jumping point. I grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota where, if you're not good at football, you better figure something out fast. For me, that was doing community theater and high school theater. It was pretty much the standard underfunded high school theater, but it was still a lot of fun and I ended up going to school for it in New York. That was something that I never thought could happen. Honestly, I didn’t know if I was good enough to get into those schools and then I did, so I gave it a shot.
BW: I made one about a box for a box. I could only sell what I had so it was a cardboard box. I was displaying all the functions of the cardboard boxes, like “You can sit on it, you can sit in it, you can put it on your head, you can throw it at people.” I did the thing where it's like, “Watch how difficult it is to reach the cupboard without a cardboard box.” My mom helped me and was my cameraman for those. To this day, she still talks about those infomercials fondly.
BW: My inspirations were the teachers I had and the adults in my life. My mom was a single mom who raised me by herself and was working two jobs. She is definitely one of the role models in my life. I was lucky to meet a lot of good teachers and good people who believed in me.
BW: It was terrible! [laughs] But also great. It was like therapy, like exercising my demons. It was all the terrifying things about being in high school. You live through all that terrible stuff and then you move past it, right? Then you become an actor and you're like, “I have all this childhood trauma, I might as well use it.” But honestly, it was really gratifying to be able to truthfully use my specific experiences, because I grew up as one of the only Asian American kids in town. That's a very specific experience that I didn't think I would ever be able to fully embody in a character—ever. Because I had never done that and I've never seen evidence of that existing in the media before. Then I just so happened to have this script fall onto my desk and when I read it for the first time, I was like, “Did these people like hide in a bush when I was going to school and write down my actual life experiences?” Because it felt so true and so specific to me. It immediately became clear to me that this was going to be an exercise of using my real lived experience of really going back, as you said—to high school.
BW: It was good. There were some parts of it that were great, some parts of it that were pretty bad. Some trauma and some triumphs. It was growing up, you know? You could probably make an eight episode season out of it, maybe with Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan.
It was very complicated and for a long time, I thought it was very unique. It was a bit lonely thinking about how specific my own experiences were growing up until I read Gene’s book and read the script. I was like, “Oh, this is what it feels like to have something in the media that reflects your specific experiences. I never had that before. This is awesome. I want this for everyone.”
[My town] was also a college town. There were all sorts of people, but very few Asians. I was the only Asian person in my class until middle school because we had three different elementary schools. Then I met three other Asians and it was like a rare bird sighting. I feel like in the East Coast and West Coast, I've met a lot of Asian actors and young Asian people and they have very different experiences because they grew up in places where they had a community, where there were other kids like them. Sometimes I've talked to people who grew up in schools that were majority Asian. That just speaks to how diverse the diaspora is and how many different sorts of experiences we all have, despite the fact that we all share a lot of cultural roots. There are still a lot of differences among us
BW: Yeah, definitely. In the house, underneath the carpet in the hallway, there was a foam carpet floor protector, and the corner of it was poking out. One of the cameramen who was trying to frame the shot saw that and said, “Oh, can the set tech fix that? It's poking out.” The set techs were both Asian, and they were like, “No, no, no.” And I was like, “Yes! Oh, my god.” The corner of the thing always pokes out, that's a thing. Why is that a thing? I don't know. But it is and it brought me back to my childhood.
There was also a scene where we're eating breakfast, and they gave me a bowl of congee with preserved egg and pork—pidan shourou zhou. Growing up, that was my favorite thing to eat for breakfast. There were a lot of really small details, and that's the boon of having a creative team that comes from the same place that this show comes from, that all of this stuff was automatic, all of the specificities were intrinsic.
That said, having those tiny specificities really helped put us in that [setting], and I think you'll see that in the show. The actors are so fantastically brilliant. It's a really truthfully acted show. There are different television shows that have different styles, but this show, despite it being a comedy of sorts, despite it having these fantastical and wuxia elements, it's really, really grounded in specific truth.
BW: Actually, I was sort of raised by my grandparents for the first half of my childhood. My mom was a fashion designer in China. But when we came here, her undergrad degree became null and void, so she had to go back to school. She went for three or four years, and I lived with my grandparents. Then she came back when I was going into middle school. It was tough for a bit. We had a contentious relationship for a while. Just being a single mom is hard enough, right? Then add being a single mom of an only child, and doing that in a whole new world while trying to navigate a career and chasing your own dreams—I have a lot of respect for her. To her credit, she has always, always supported me working in the arts. She's always supported me doing theater. She did force me to play piano and the violin. [laughs] Those ended up being things I was really grateful for down the line when I went to school for musical theater.
After I left for college, our relationship got really, really good. She ended up going back to China and starting a career in early childhood education. She's still there now and running her own preschool and she loves it. She feels like she's getting a chance to basically start over and I feel like I'm just getting started in my career too. So we're both at a good place.
BW: My best takeaway is that you can be an international superstar actor and still be the most kind and down-to-earth person. As an actor who's just getting into the industry, you meet people who have outsized egos, and you meet people who can be difficult. Sometimes those people are really, really good at what they do. When you meet enough of those people and you wonder, “Is it inevitable? Is it inevitable that you lose touch with being a kind person?” Then you meet Ke and Michelle, and you're like, “No, actually, not at all.” Whoever said “Don't meet your heroes” obviously never met Michelle Yeoh or Ke Huy Quan.
American Born Chinese premiered on Disney+ on May 24, 2023.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.