Five Thoughts On American Born Chinese’s “Rockstar Status”

By | June 12th, 2023
Posted in Television | % Comments

Welcome to our review of the THIRD episode of American Born Chinese, “Rockstar Status.” Naturally, SPOILERS to come, and if you’re looking for the first or second episode recaps, just come back after you’ve seen “Rockstar Status” and caught up on all of Wei-Chen, Jin, and Guanyin’s journeys and shenanigans…

1. All You Can Eat Enlightenment
I’ll admit up front that this was my least favorite ep out of the first three. But “Rockstar Status” still delivered an opening and ending that hit the spot, coasting off the rockstar heights of the show’s strong start with a wise and quippy Michelle Yeoh. The Oscar winner, and all-around uber Rockstar, plays Guanyin, and as someone who grew up with tales of this goddess, I’m still in awe whenever Yeoh’s on the screen. (Wink). Guanyin meets Sun WuKong, shapeshifting trickster Monkey King, in cricket form before both enjoy some “Lucky Buffet” and chat up the tumult in heaven, perils of fatherhood, and how failure brings the enlightenment that is the victory. It’s hard for me to gauge how audiences with no exposure to these mythologies connect with scenes like this, but for someone like me, the juxtaposition of American Chinese buffet food with talk of the Jade Emperor and Niu MoWang (Bull Demon) is delicious, ironic contrast.

2. “Hard to Believe… But It’s Real” 
Speaking of ironic juxtapositions, our main characters Jin and Wei-Chen experience some major breakthroughs in their relationship in “Rockstar Status,” poised between heavenly uprisings and teenage rituals. The surprise to those familiar with the graphic novel is that, so early in the season, Wei-Chen almost off-handedly reveals that he’s the son of the Monkey King to Jin. Before that, however, we get the most obvious reason for the title, as Jin enjoys some shine at the soccer team’s pep rally. But the dream he has in the morning about the Kugoren action figure and his flashbacks to the fight with Pigsy last episode all stack on top of his soccer star moment’s surreality. All of it provides the same juxtaposition that’s quite central to Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, even if our plot is considerably more elaborated in this TV season. Namely: the scale of our adolescent worries is silly and sadly compared to the magnitude of our heritages and dreams. Jin seems stupidly incapable of properly weighing the heft of Wei-Chen’s revelations against the fatuousness of Travis. But neither Yang’s comic nor the TV show seems to mock or harshly judge Jin’s over-obsession with impressing his small circle of pubescent peers at the expense of the fate of eternity. It feels more like a confessional for the creators… and haven’t we all been there too?

3. Mama Said There’d be Haze Like This
Jin winds up predictably missing his invitation by Wei-Chen to meet his “Aunt” the freakin’ Goddess of Mercy in order to help the Monkey Prince find the Fourth Scroll, all because… Travis. The teen oneupmanship and hot-dog eating contests and ultimately “prove you have what it takes” hazing is all pretty cringeworthy. Perhaps on purpose. Nestled right in there is our next scene with Ke Huy Quon’s Freddy character on the old “Beyond Repair” sitcom. Again, like the graphic novel, one slight cringe reverberates with one deep cringe, as the racist caricature scenes in Yang’s “American Born Chinese” provided a harsh clang that heightened the notes of betrayal and internalized self-hatred in Jin’s desperate grasping for (white) acceptance. The show’s subtle cringe points –the hot-dog eating spectacle, the digs at comic nerddom, the “Maybe she’s into shy mumbling” slight– are small enough for Jin to believably brush them aside while ebbing away at us all like microaggressive fire ants. But by the time Jin is sent off on his hazing missions, I’m feeling pretty sick to my stomach. Not with hatred of Travis, and certainly not of Jin, but of that desperate drive for acceptance, that sad misapplication of the “go-get-’em” that Jin’s mom has instilled in him. I’m sick at what I know will be the costs and consequences of that desperation.

4. Getting a Taste of Our Own Medicine
Speaking of Jin’s mom, and again for comparison’s sake, we see Yann Yann Yeo’s Christine go after it with some initiative of her own. At the point where the acupuncturist took the picture without permission for Facebook, and the herbal medicine started getting peddled at the church volunteers event where moms brag or shade their kids’ colleges, I reacted with a visceral, “Okay, okay, we’re laying it on a bit thick with the diasporic Chinese community tropes, aren’t we?” Even Melly, the Bubblegrunge/Nu Metal/Trapwave/etc aspiring musician and granddaughter of closing herbalist, felt like a stereotypical anti-stereotype type. But I should judge neither these characters nor the purpose of the mom’s medicinal dealmaking plotline too quickly before I see how they play out. I can just attest, at this point, that in my experience, none of this is a very exaggerated picture of our community, if I’m honest.

Continued below

5. Bring a new era of change. Or at least a new coffee table.  
The conversation between Niu MoWang and Guanyin at the apartment where the Bodhisattva of Compassion assembles new Ikea furniture feels like more exposition-laden and fight-scene-obligatory action. I hate it that I didn’t love those scenes. I did appreciate that the Bull Demon, Niu MoWang, finally does appear not as a menacing troublemaker but a jilted yet earnest rebel. He declares, “Heaven is a broken system far beyond repair,” and sets up that the larger conflict isn’t a stark good-and-evil but a contest of wills and wiles.

Somehow, that tone actually takes away much of that cringe factor and infuses a ton of joy in the scenes where Wei-Chen helps Jin accomplish his soccer hazing statue TPing task, mirthfully collaborating with a bit of magic and a lot of mischief. I did love that ending and where the characters are with each other at the end of the episode. I can’t wait to check back in with them in the next episode. Or maybe the one after that…


Next week, we’ll forge ahead with American Born Chinese episode 4, “Make a Splash”… the episode with the most divided opinions among viewers I hear from! Stay tuned.


//TAGS | American Born Chinese

Paul Lai


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