Book Title: American Panda (Standalone) Author: Gloria Chao Number of pages: 320
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.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– First generation Taiwanese American protagonist beginning university at MIT at age 17 (one year earlier than her age cohort)
– Struggles of culture and family expectations balanced against protagonist’s passion and her struggle with germaphobia being a hindrance to her current success at school
– The setting/world building is lush with Chinese culture re: traditions, idioms, food, art, values, etc.
– Heavy on the instalove romance with a Japanese love interest
Like looking into a mirror.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of American Panda from Simon and Schuster Canada.
American Panda follows Mei, a first generation Taiwanese American teenager, who not only finds herself a fish out of water as she enters first-year university a year ahead of her age cohort but also in her home life as she tackle the Asian diaspora experience. With familial expectations, a disowned brother, and her aversion to germs weighing every decision, Mei’s future isn’t the only thing on the line…it’s that she’s living a life that isn’t wholly her own.
Gloria Chao’s debut contemporary, American Panda, wins all the accolades on cultural nods alone. The inflections of [Chinese] traditions, idioms, food, etc., brings Mei’s voice to life with wholesome authenticity that enveloped my heart with joy seeing glimpses of my experience on the page.
In terms of originality and delivery, portions of this book is easily predictable and though Panda might not read ‘new’ from usual contemporaries tackling self-identity, family, academia, and romance, it is considered new if you discount the over-saturated market of white cis-hetero narratives. With American Panda, an Asian takes the contemporary reigns. Not the nerd to get you out of fickle situations due to your incompetency. Not the martial artist extraordinaire with a samurai ninja star. And certainly not a submissive Asian standby. But Mei: a Chinese heroine finding herself in an American school setting. That’s something.
Speaking to the world building, it’s as if all the cultural things in the kitchen sink have been included in this story. And I have zero problems with that, honestly. From weekly gatherings for family meals (yep) to Mei’s parents barging into her school space with food and fresh laundry (yep yep) to even thinking their child has died because they didn’t answer a phone call (…) or the horrors of a low grade (r.i.p a B!), what this all amounts to is a space for Mei’s family to showcase their love. It sounds manipulative (and maybe it is) but it’s an unspoken bond where kids are pushed to excel higher-and-higher meanwhile parents are supportive to this endeavor, so long as it fits in their expectations. It’s well intended, I guess.
And yes, it might feel as if these everyday things (otherwise “stereotypes”) pander to checking off a list of including a culturally relevant to the moon and back and that they’re narrative cliches to include — but I’m telling you that this shit happens. It’s hard to explain how important it is to witness own voices in action when world building a contemporary setting.
As this story is set at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was wonderful that there was Easter Eggs of campus life that seem truly unique to MIT. I can’t question it’s accuracy, but I’ll assume the various scenes that took place at the school was handled well.
Some of the best moments in American Panda are in the dialogue between Mei and her parents. One key standout moment is in the voicemails that open up every chapter (save Chapter 4, because that doesn’t exist). It’s such a small thing, to open the scene with a voicemail [usually from Mei’s mother] but it carried so much weight as it reinforced the aforementioned support of their prodigal child of which their future rests.
Moreover, I quite enjoyed how real I felt the dialogue was presented. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to describe it but there’s a comedic touch to how Mei internalizes her surroundings and thinks on her predicaments to both circumvent her parent’s disappoint and/or how she manages her life in lieu of her germaphobia. I didn’t hate the slapstick humor of it all even if it was borderline cringe at times.
There’s English romanization of text strewn throughout this book with limited follow-through as to what it means. While it’s a great teaching vessel, it’s a double-edged sword for two reasons. For those who don’t share the knowledge of the language, all you have to go by is Mei’s thought process interpreting what it means. Secondly, it’s the continued use of certain phrases as a supplement for English words that often baffled me. I completely understand when phrases hold a more nuanced meaning in another language; I do this all the time when I speak with family. But there are times that its done in such a way that it breaks the flow of Mei’s narrations.
I just want to say how bleak this story can get. It’s not all Hello Kitty and dumplings with American Panda. Mei feels the brunt of dishonoring her family and the tribulations that come with disobeying her parents. It’s tough, and sometimes it’s real, but Chao doesn’t shy away from introducing these narratives because they’re more important than ever to assess the dichotomy of American versus Asian-American parenting for the next generation.
The character development and relationships lacked grit. For Mei in particular, there was a bit of dissonance believing her academic prowess. It’s great that this story focuses on higher education, but while her major of study is not her passion (that’s fine), we never really see her struggling in class. I understand that her germaphobia is what deters her from the her studies — that’s fine, and certainly not where my concerns spawn from — instead, it’s the dread-and-fear of failure that you’ve done so much to put yourself in a position to succeed that was missing for me. Even passion projects warrant feelings of not being good enough and it’s this self-doubt parallel to disappointing herself and her family that wasn’t explored as thoroughly as I had hoped.
Mei’s parents (or her entire family sans her brother) are also a tough bunch to digest. What I had hard time adjusting to is the perspective that inhibits the nuance that comes with knowingly immigrating to a new home and raising kids under a different social lens. It’s not really brought forth either. I mean it’s one thing to be headstrong about where you come from and it’s another to disregard any other sort of thought if it strays from your own. It almost feels cult-y (as bad as that sounds). Characters grow but there’s nothing really supporting why it took x many years to come to terms with it. Or maybe they’re forever stubborn and uncompromising.
However, it’s when both worlds meet that magic happens on the page and where American Panda showcases the best moments of managing one’s own anxieties and passions versus the familial and cultural expectations North American kids have grown up with. Sure, it’s them butting heads most of the time but it’s in those scenes that we witness most of the cogs turning from both perspectives (Mei’s and her parents).
The instalove in this story is a bit much for me; which isn’t to say that the romance itself was not ship worthy, but rather it went from zero-to-a thousand in a few scenes. Perhaps the quickened development was a necessary a point of contention to bolster Mei’s duty to her family (re: pseudo arranged marriage vibes). I just wasn’t sold on how they met (literally eyes across a busy room) to snake-charming each other in the successive scenes.
A Canadian Panda has been unleashed in Gloria Chao’s American Panda.
Reviewing fiction is often an arduous journey of lifting the veil of subjectivity to objectively critiquing the craft of storytelling. It’s just what I’ve always done. So while I can fully support my disappointment with some character development, question narrative choices, or gleefully bask in the diverse inclusion that made my upbringing what it was, at the end of the day, American Panda is a single voice (unrepresentative of all Chinese/East Asian voices) that, simply put, is a story I am stoked to say I could find bits and pieces of myself in. If that’s not a powerful thing, I don’t know what is.
Q&A with Gloria Chao:
Joey: The options are limitless in what you could have pulled from our [Chinese] culture in giving life to Mei’s story. I’m curious as to what cultural things (e.g. habits, values, items, etc.) from your personal life that you knew you wanted to (or had to) include?
Gloria: I had a long list of unique pieces of culture (with potential for humor) that I wanted to incorporate into the book, and while I ended up cutting many things, some of the unused items have made their way into my second book. I ended up using the pieces of culture that were most relevant to Mei’s story and the other characters. For example, Mei’s mother is beauty obsessed (hence the name “Mei” which means “beautiful”) and thus I was able to work in the saying “There are no ugly women, only lazy women,” and the popular “papaya makes your boobs grow” belief, which yes, my mother adhered to.
I also knew I wanted to include the ancestor worshipping I grew up with, as much of the language as I could, and definitely the food (braised pork rice, shaved ice, dumplings, oyster pancakes!). My family is very food-centric, and I knew I wanted that to be important for Mei’s family as well.
Most of all, I wanted to capture the harder parts of the cultural gap—the expectations, the guilt, the sacrifice on both ends—because it’s not talked about enough, and teen me would have loved to know that I wasn’t alone. That was my reason for writing this book, for all the Meis out there who need a story like theirs.
J: What was the inspiration for having Mei be academically ahead of her age cohort? Did the story or character come first?
G: The story and character came about simultaneously. I knew I wanted to write a story about a teen who has a different vision for her life than her parents, and Mei is largely based on myself. The reason Mei is academically ahead of her age cohort is actually a side effect of the publishing market. I originally wrote her to be a senior in college applying to medical school, but publishers didn’t know where to place this book on the shelves. I ended up making her a freshman in college and aging her down to seventeen to be able to fit in the young adult market (though the college setting was still an obstacle). In the end, it became a part of Mei and made her story better since it explained why she was socially awkward and a fish out of water in college.
J: What’s your favourite combination of dumpling filling?
G: I think the soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung are the standard-bearer, so I guess I’d have to go with pork and whatever additional deliciousness is in those. There’s also a fabulous dumpling place in Chicago’s Chinatown with over 50 types of dumplings on the menu, and my favorite there is the lamb coriander dumpling, steamed. My mouth is watering just thinking of those!