Disclosure: I received a review copy of American Panda from Pansing Books, a regional distributor, in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.American Panda by Gloria Chao • contains 320 pages • published February 6, 2018 by Simon Pulse, Simon & Schuster • classified as Contemporary, Young Adult • obtained through Pansing Books • read as ARC • shelve on Goodreads
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.
Young adult books set in college, or even about the summer before college, aren’t all too common. That’s why I was surprised when I first learnt that American Panda is set at MIT. Well, Mei is 17 years old as she enters a year early but it works out well for this book. Mei had a sheltered upbringing, which is very evident as she tries to find her place at university.
I loved reading about her freshman year and how she adjusts to living away from home. Although, she’s still very much tethered to her family, and that was something that I related to a lot.
See, I attended a local university here in Singapore. Even though I lived on campus throughout my undergraduate years, I went home on weekends. Everyone with family in Singapore did, unless we had project deadlines or upcoming exams.
In terms of campus life, it varies, but I did have a friend who attended MIT. A couple of his stories matched up pretty well with American Panda. And really, with an author who’s an alumna, I’m sure there’s truth to Mei’s experiences too.
Steeped in Culture
The best part about American Panda truly is that it’s steeped in Taiwanese American culture written by an own voices author. Mei’s experiences rang true to me and was even familiar in ways many YA books aren’t.
Because I grew up in Singapore where I was surrounded by a dominant Chinese culture, I recognised a lot of overlaps. Life was a lot more conservative in high school and university compared to the many YA contemporary books I read. To finally read a YA book where filial piety is prized? Such a long time coming!
American Panda unapologetically revels in Taiwanese American culture. There’s an abundance of dumplings; tofu, rice and egg tarts also show up. It was hard to suppress cravings as I read the book.
It doesn’t shy away from difficult and even negative either — rumours that set diasporas aflame, parents’ refusal to accept anything less than an A, bragging whose children are more successful, forbidding teens to date but expecting them to be married by their mid-20s and so on.
At the end, I did sit in quiet contemplation over American Panda. Is it filled with too many (negative) stereotypes? Does it reinforce the “tiger mom” impression many have of Asian, and especially Chinese, parents? In some ways, maybe. But for many, this really is what life is like when parents expect obedience, perfection and success from their children.
Conflict Between Tradition and Modernity
On the surface, American Panda can be read like any other book about a teen rebelling against her parents’ wishes. When you dig deeper, you see that it’s about more than that. This book portrays various interpretations of Taiwanese-American culture, as every family and every generation understand it differently.
For first generation immigrants, holding on to traditions that tie them to their home countries matters a lot. For second generation immigrants, their roots are deeper in the new home country. That gives rise to conflicts as parents cling to traditions that might not even matter anymore in the more modern times back home. The resultant difficulties are so well explored in American Panda that it struck several chords in me.
There is one glaring omission and that’s in the form of a missing glossary. At the beginning, there’s an author’s note explaining the transliteration of Mandarin words but no translations. If you know Mandarin, that’s not a problem but American Panda is peppered with Mandarin expressions.
In some cases, it does lend more authenticity to the speech between Mei and her parents, their relatives and acquaintances.For the narrative, however, I thought it was too much to not include a glossary. I say this as someone who knows enough basic Mandarin not to struggle with the text. A good portion of the words can be inferred but there are times where someone without knowledge of the language might feel lost.
Plot, Characters and Humour
The overarching plot isn’t overly complicated but still offers some surprises. Despite some very heavy aspects to Mei’s life, there’s a fair bit of humour that made me smirk and occasionally even laugh to myself.
At the same time, Mei reconnecting with her brother leads readers to explore the meaning and role of family in heart-wrenching ways. So really, be prepared for emotional ups and downs throughout the book!
Alright, that’s a lot of thoughts from me about American Panda. If you live in Southeast Asia, I’m hosting a giveaway for you on Twitter:
And I’m excited to host a giveaway, courtesy of @definitelybooks for one hardcover of American Panda! ✨ RT + follow @definitelybooks & @wordrevel to enter. Ends Feb 21. Southeast Asia only. pic.twitter.com/hiMauzsxug— Joséphine (@wordrevel) February 6, 2018