Author: Gloria Chao
Publisher: Simon Pulse
First Published: February 6, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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?
I picked up American Panda because I had heard a lot of positive feedback from Asian American book bloggers about how relatable it was and how stinking cute the cover was. Even though the synopsis sums up the book pretty well, I was still pleasantly surprised by what I got reading the book. It was a very fast read for me and I had a hard time putting it down, finishing the book in just two sittings.
The book follows Mei, a first-generation Asian American struggling with the cultural clash that comes with having a traditional Taiwanese family. While I can’t speak personally on the authenticity of the Taiwanese American experience, I can say that I was able to relate to this book on a level I didn’t expect as a mixed-race Filipino American. Mei is a well-developed character—she’s smart, struggles with anxiety and germaphobia, her own interests, and strong opinions. She tries her hardest to appease her family while still living out her dreams. She is under constant pressure from her family to be the perfect daughter and struggles with the crushing guilt that comes with suppressing her inner desires in order to stay in the family.
“No one understood me or how hard this was. How I felt like I had to split myself in two, neither of them truly Mei, just to make everyone else happy.”
The romance between Mei and Darren was adorable and awkward and made my heart soar, but I’m also glad that it wasn’t the central focus of the novel. Though both characters are Asian American, there is a distinct difference between Mei and Darren’s attitudes toward family due to the generational gap. I thought this was a good detail that isn’t often explored in books that talk about the Asian American experience, and so I appreciated that this theme was represented. Darren is able to relate on some level to Mei and understands her internal conflict, but at the same time he doesn’t, and that’s something that I’ve struggled with myself while dating.
The format of the novel was also very cute, with skipped chapter numbers due to superstitions, humorous voicemails from Mei’s family, and text bubbles for her text messages. It is a nice added touch that I was happy to see and helps give this book that extra bit of charm. I only really have two criticisms for the book, and one of them really just has to do with the fact that I’m older. The book has a lot of toilet humor and tons of STD jokes that made me roll my eyes a little bit. Given the target audience though it’s understandable and I recognize that this part of the novel just isn’t for me. The other notable thing is the pacing, which was a little disjointed which is again understandable since it is the author’s first book. I struggled with it at first, but the story pacing gets better in the later parts of the book.
Overall this was a fun and fluffy debut and was a story that I was needing more than I realized. Though I had originally borrowed this book from the library, I loved it so much I bought a copy for my personal shelves. I definitely look forward to reading more by Chao in the future!