American Panda by Gloria Chao
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Feb 6, 2018)
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’d like to thank Pansing Singapore for sending me an ARC of American Panda for review.
From the moment I saw a Chinese girl on the cover of Gloria Chao’s debut novel, American Panda, I knew, from the bottom of my heart, that I had to read it.
Aside from the fact that it’s Taiwanese-Chinese rep in YA, I do love a good YA set in college. Which is shamefully quite lacking! The only books that are set in college, that I could think of, are Sandhya Menon’s stellar debut, When Dimple Met Rishi and Rainbow Rowell’s classic coming-of-age novel, Fangirl.
So, I am glad to share that American Panda, Gloria Chao’s adorably delightful novel, makes it on the list of my favourite books set in college. Or do we have a term for that? Varsity lit? I don’t know what they are called but here’s a shout-out that we need more of them!
(Also, I am loving how the cover of American Panda matches my blog’s theme!)
Similar to most coming-of-age stories, American Panda explores themes such as filial piety, family expectations, traditions and culture, finding a suitable career and doing what you love. In many ways, I could relate to the protagonist, Mei Lu, who is seventeen and thrown into college life because of her parents’ big plans for her future. For years, she has been the poster child—always putting up the image of the perfect Chinese daughter. Especially ever since her parents disowned her brother for falling in love with the wrong girl in their eyes.
American Panda is Mei’s story as she ventures into uncharted territory: college life. Enrolled at MIT and having a path towards a future in medicine, Mei seems to have it all. Or so she seems. The thing is, Mei has germaphobia, where she’s constantly relying on her pomegranate scented hand sanitiser to survive. Guess that doesn’t really bode well when you’re doing premed and you’re terrified by germs.
“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.”
I found Mei’s story to be really authentic because it was just so darn relatable. Growing up, I have heard from practically anyone that I must study hard and become a doctor/engineer/lawyer because these professions pay well. *eye roll* My parents were really supportive when I decided to pursue my degree in English Linguistics and for that, I am forever grateful. Look at me, the rebel. However, Mei’s parents were really hellbent on her pursuing premed because being a doctor is a respectable profession with excellent prospects. For me, it wasn’t a shocker to find out how much her parents had sacrificed and poured their heart and soul, just to provide her with the opportunity to have a future they never had.
However, Mei’s heart is not set on doing premed. She loves dancing and her passion lies there and throughout American Panda, readers will see that she uses dance as a form of escape. There is this stereotype, I am not sure if it’s only limited to Chinese culture, but anything related to arts is not a career as they are mere hobbies. And I find that American Panda did touch on this matter, where it is totally fine to pursue your passions, regardless of what your parents want for you.
I was very moved by how Mei stood up for herself and decided that she didn’t have to conform to her parents and other people’s expectations. She stayed true to her beliefs and I was rooting for her when she found her voice. Now that’s what I love in a YA heroine. The character development and growth in Mei throughout the book really touched me and I just wanted to give her a hug for standing up for herself.
You will find quite a number of Chinese expressions in the form of idioms and metaphors and I felt like I’ve been missing out on how beautiful the Chinese language is. Fret not, Mei does provide a good explanation of the expressions. Either that, or you can more or less pick up the meaning of certain words based on its context.
Gloria Chao balances all the serious talk on expectations and familial sacrifices with the cutest yet forbidden romance. I adored Mei and Darren’s relationship, because they are the most precious dumplings. You see that cup of hot chocolate Mei is holding on the cover? Yes, that represents the romance in American Panda. Delightfully warm and it leaves you with that gooey feeling inside of you.
True to the title of Gloria Chao’s amazing debut novel, “American Panda” holds such an impactful meaning in Mei’s story. As cultures are rich and ever-changing, being Chinese is not black and white, like the cuddly, furry creature we love. I really don’t know what else to say but “GET AMERICAN PANDA NOW!” because I just have so many thoughts and feelings and emotions when I was reading it.
Aside from it being a wonderful and adorable contemporary YA novel set in college, American Panda does pack a punch, especially when it certainly doesn’t lack in the family drama department! Also, it’s laced with centuries of Chinese traditions and cultures which really enrich Mei’s story. As a Malaysian Chinese, even I was quite surprised to find out a thing or two about my own culture and I must commend Gloria Chao on writing such a seamless tale, blending cultural beliefs and superstitions, and buckets of humour. Thank you, Gloria jiě.