Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Thien Pham
Publisher: First Second (June 7, 2011)
Setting: The story is set mostly in the United States of America, in Ouyang’s home and school.
Main Characters: Dennis Ouyang, Father, Four Angels
Summary: Dennis Ouyang is an American born Chinese whose parents moved from China to the US when they were newly weds. As a kid, Dennis was always attracted to video games and he pestered his parents to buy him a set but they never obliged because they wanted him to concentrate on his studies. His father died of liver cancer after his high school graduation and feeling depressed, he got himself a game set and became addicted to gaming. His addiction resulted in him getting expelled from college but four angels appeared on that fateful day to tell him that his destiny was to become a gastroenterologist. They got him re-enrolled into college and made him study day and night to qualify for medical school, which he did.
In medical school, he made friends with a group of students and they often hung out and studied together. However, his angels disapproved and felt that hanging out with his friends made him lose focus on his studies and his destiny. One day, he announced to his angels that he was quitting medical school as he wasn’t happy and refused to conform to his “destiny”. He decided to make a living by participating in well-known gaming competitions but his life still felt empty. He later found out that his dad was supposed to attend medical school but gave up his dream because his wife was expecting Dennis, so he settled for an engineering job instead to take care of the family.
After some time, Dennis realised that saving lives on video games felt purposeless and unreal. That realisation made him enroll back into medical school, where he discovered his “destiny”. One of his professors introduced him to a colonoscopy machine which required steady hands and precision, and Dennis maneuvered the scope with ease – it finally dawned upon him that he was fulfilling his destiny in gastroenterology.
Review: As a graphic novel, the illustrator has employed the traditional comic strip layout for the entire story, with the use of simple watercolour illustrations and generally muted colours. It is interestingly divided into four sections with headings that read: “Press Start to Begin,” “Level 1,” “Level 2,” “Level 3,” “Game Over. Play Again? Yes. No.” – a unique representation of showing the different stages in Dennis’s life, from a young boy, to a teenager, to a young adult.
The angels in the story are of particular interest too, who are later revealed to be the “ghosts” carrying the baggage of his father’s broken promises, who had promised his uncle and father (Ouyang’s granduncle and grandfather) that he was going to be a doctor. However, all these promises were broken when Dennis was born and his father settled for a career as an engineer instead. The treatment in his scene is especially interesting, where the illustrator places Dennis as the yellow man in the pac-man game, who eventually “eats up” all the ghosts to get rid of his father’s baggage.
The central theme of this story is ambition. When Dennis saw his first arcade video game at six, he developed a strong affiliation towards it and had a natural flair for it. His ambition back then was to play video games for life. Then came the angels who told him that his destiny was to become a gastroenterologist, which was his father’s ambition. Failing to fulfil his dream and having died an early death, the ambition was then transferred to his son, Dennis, who later realised that his ambition for gaming would eventually shape his career.
The theme of maturity is also present. Dennis matured as a person who initially thought of gaming simply as a way of life to someone who applied his practice on game consoles to the colonoscopy machine. Growing up, his impression of his father also changed – from a boy who never understood his parents’ intentions for refusing to introduce him to the world of gaming, to someone who became appreciative after learning about the sacrifices his father had made for him.
Finally, the theme of friendship is evident. When Dennis was having a class on stool examination, he received a call that his mother had been hospitalised. His group of friends volunteered to give him a ride to the hospital and accompany him on his visit. They even read his mother’s chart and explained to her that she was simply diabetic so that she didn’t have to worry unnecessarily. At the end of the story, when Dennis returned to medical school after his hiatus, he bumped into his close friend Ipsha and she initiated catching up with him and their usual clique again. She could have done that because she had a crush on him but Dennis was grateful that he wasn’t alone in school – he had friends.
Overall, the book is a fun and light-hearted read. It subtly portrays a positive side to gaming, which is often associated with violent and aggressive behaviour due to the nature of some games. In this story, it shows how Ouyang’s gaming abilities have an impact on his career, debunking stereotypes that gaming is simply bad influence. More importantly, it portrays an American Born Chinese in a positive light – getting into medical school and being successful in society. There isn’t any hint of racism either, just pure friendship among a group of students who hail from different backgrounds and ethnicities. (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)
Disclaimer: All pictures are credited to the publisher, author and illustrator