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REVIEW: American Panda, by Gloria Chao

February 6, 2018
REVIEW: American Panda, by Gloria ChaoAmerican Panda by Gloria Chao
Published by Simon and Schuster on February 6th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Diversity & Multicultural, Humorous, General, People & Places, United States, Asian American
Pages: 320
Amazon // The Book Depository

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.

American Panda feels like a deeply personal novel. out of all the books i read (and i read A LOT of books), this was the first starring a teen Chinese-American – like me. for the first time ever, i felt seen.

however, the character’s situation couldn’t feel more different than my personal ones. Mei has extremely traditional Taiwanese parents who forced her to pursue medicine, and are constantly finding suitors for her. at first, i saw this as so stereotypically “Asian,” i was offended. i’m Asian; my story isn’t like that. (obviously, xandra; but i’m getting to that part!!) the funny thing is, i’ve never had that thought for a book with predominantly white characters – even though it’s probably more unrelatable. but the thing is, we’ve taught ourselves to see that as “normal” even if it’s different from your personal experiences. for POC, it’s supposed to be different because our traditions are different. but when a rare diverse book that follows your culture pops up? everything should be relatable then! spoiler: it’s not; every story is different and that’s NORMAL. i seemed to have forgotten that at first. every “white” book is a little different (aside from plot obviously), the same goes for diverse #ownvoices books. so if someone says an author is writing an #ownvoices book wrong, that person is very wrong. ANYWAY.

from the author’s note

with American Panda, i was almost insulted by the exaggerations of the first 50 pages – overprotective parents, doing everything for the sake of a secure job, pleasing a future husband. i felt 🙄 at the stereotypes. BUT there was a moment of clarity when i realized there are so many people out there who struggle with these problems as Asian-Americans – even me. this story is painfully REAL. i’ve met so many Chinese parents who pressure their kids with academics and disown them if they aren’t complacent. so complacent that the kids don’t even know what they want.

View Spoiler »

i didn’t see that at first because, luckily, my parents are the polar opposite. as a child, they constantly told me, “do what makes you happy,” even if it was something irregular or inconvenient. sometimes i forget how privileged i am to have supportive parents, but American Panda was a happy reminder. the thing is, Mei’s parents aren’t awful. they’re the perfect kind of frustrating i see in my own parents. they are loving and supportive of doing everything they can to make sure their daughter can have a “secure” and “happy” life. they don’t kiss her goodnight, but find ways to make sure they can pay for her medical school. it’s a different kind of love i see in my own family.

moving on from that…

the chinese references are also SO GREAT. Chao often finds ways to incorporate Mandarin into the English text because there are some things that can’t be translated. so much of Chinese culture is in the language; idioms, traditions, superstitions are all huge aspects. there’s a difference between saying “rènào” vs “popular.” it’s subtle but important.

one of my favorite aspects of American Panda is the focus on family. i’m not sure if it’s just Asian culture, but family is a BIG DEAL and i rarely see that in other books. Mei’s parents play a huge role and i felt that connection very strongly. after finishing, i somehow felt closer to my own parents. her brother was also a vital part in helping her understand herself.

surprisingly, the romance wasn’t that big of a part of the book – and that’s why i like it more. i felt like the story was more about Mei finding herself and her place with her family instead of “my parents don’t like my boyfriend” sort of thing. it was part of a bigger picture. but, i wish there were more of Mei and Darren (i know!! i just i liked how that wasn’t the Big Thing!! but still!!!). they were just so cute I WANTED MORE. and i also felt like they didn’t really go through that ~awkwardly falling in love~ phase as long as i hoped.

there’s so much i love about American Panda: the Taiwanese culture(!!!!!), the family, the themes, and so much more. although there were some things that bothered me (the semi-unrealistic-ness), i’m eternally grateful for this story’s existence. it made me want to reconnect with my Chinese roots, but also embrace my American upbringing. it made feel closer to all my Asian-American 姐姐 and 妹妹s. it made me feel proud of where my family is from. even though it’s not ~my story,~ it felt like my story.

side note: i feel extremely partial to Mei because 1) she loves and speaks dance!!!! we are the same!!! and 2) she’s born in the year of the tiger which is the same as me. i feel so much closer to her just because of these small details.

Rating Report
Overall: 4.3

GO READ AMERICAN PANDA. and if you have any more asian-american book recommendations, please sent them my way!

Alexandra Ling

alexandra is a twenty-year-old content creator and avid reader. when she's not on the internet or hiding behind pages, you can find her training to be a professional ballet dancer or practicing yoga. she currently resides in los angeles, california.