Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao
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.
I LOVED this book. It was on my list of books I’m most looking forward to this year and it totally delivered.
At only 17, Mei is a first-year pre-med student at MIT. Her Taiwanese immigrant parents should be proud of her. She should be excited to be in college and on the path to her career. Except her parents only sparingly dole out praise and Mei doesn’t actually want to be a doctor. Her debilitating fear of germs is one roadblock, sure, but it’s more that she just really has no interest in this career; she’d love to own a dance studio instead. But her parents pressure her and expect certain things. After all, all it took for her (now doctor) brother to be disowned was him falling in love with a Taiwanese-American woman who has endometriosis and may have trouble conceiving. Mei’s mother is endlessly critical of her (telling her that no man wants a panda—lazy, round, and silly—her body-shaming is incessant), micromanaging her life and making it clear that anything other than the plans her parents have laid out for her are unacceptable. Mei longs for freedom now that she’s in college, but it’s hard to achieve with your parents constantly checking in and criticizing.
Despite the pressures, Mei can’t help but live her own life, one that she has to keep secret from her judging parents. She dances, teaches dance, spends time doing things other than studying, shadows a doctor and HATES it, reconnects with her brother, and falls for the charismatic Darren Takahashi, a Japanese-American classmate. Keeping so many things secret is hard on Mei, who is struggling to figure out how to exist in multiple cultures, how to carve out her own life, and to figure out where her parents end and she begins. After years of convincing herself that what she wants doesn’t matter, that fulfilling her duties is what’s important (even if it makes her miserable), Mei begins to see there may be another path. But making her way along it won’t be easy.
Though the pacing was sometimes a little off (with extraneous scenes/characters that didn’t particularly move the story along), overall this was a fantastic read. Mei is a great character—funny, awkward, determined, and conflicted—and the plot of how to straddle cultures as a child of immigrants will appeal to many readers who can relate, as will the story of wanting to make your own choices but not being sure how to go about that. Mei’s voice is strong and determined, in spite of what her controlling parents have tried to impose. I loved seeing her begin to stand up for herself and surround herself with people who got to see who she truly was. I can’t wait to see more from Chao!
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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