Published: 6 February 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Category: Contemporary/Young Adult
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 germophobia 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.
Rating: 4 Stars
American Panda is packed to the gills with a lot of things, chief among them the sheer intensity of feelings. While at first glance you may think that they will solely belong to Mei, the protagonist, this is not 100% accurate. There are so many angles to this story, experiences that we hear and learn about, that while the primary plot is so good and “finishes”, the reader is left knowing that things will go on for the characters long after the cover is closed.
Mei is a young woman who has been pushed hard all her life by her parents to achieve the best life possible. They want her to be a doctor, even getting her to skip a grade, so that at seventeen she is the youngest freshman in her class. That wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that she is germaphobic and doesn’t think she can handle being around patients the way her family wants her to as a career.
Her passion lies elsewhere; true to her culture but along a different path in dance. She experiments with it, using it to both release tension and express herself at school in an empty cafeteria and as an instructor, a job her parents don’t know about. This release allows her, I think, to attempt to push along with the dream her parents set out to give her, because we see time and again how hard she tries to be the person they want, including shadowing a doctor at the school’s health clinic.
It also opens her up to the other aspects of her life that are true to her personal being, such as choosing who she wants to be with in a romantic sense, such as her Japanese classmate Darren, and whether she wants to be in contact with her brother Xing, ostracized from the family years ago for wanting to marry a woman his parents didn’t approve of. Both situations are difficult enough on the surface, but there is a lot of cultural significance as well between Mei and Xing’s Taiwanese heritage and Darren’s Japanese that affects the events that transpire.
There were lighthearted moments, such as when Mei was teaching the younger students at the dance studio and when she was having fun with Darren, but there were also emotionally intense scenes, like when she discovered her personal strength and found the words to explain to her parents what she wanted from her life. Facing the consequences of her actions took a lot of power and I was very nervous for Mei and also really happy when she managed to find her way through the circuitous path to, if not a 100% happy ending, at least a future that made sense.
At times frustrating, at times bringing a smile to the reader’s face, Gloria Chao’s book about Mei and figuring out who she and what she wants is a contemporary discovery about a person’s culture and how it fits in with their future.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.