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?
TRIGGER WARNINGS: OCD rep, discussion on STDs, toxic family relationships and mention on suicide
American Panda was such a glorious surprise. I can not even being to describe how much this book made me think; as my first read of 2019, I couldn’t be happier that I ended up with a fantastic book.
Going into it, I thought American Panda was just going to be another fluffy contemporary about a girl dealing with strict parents while falling in love with a very-much-non-approved boy. But, in fact, there were so many other elements into this story that surprised me. It was a coming-of-age narrative (one of my favorite things ever!!!) that explored family, motherhood and being yourself in one of the most impactful ways I’ve ever read.
- This book made me feel everything. I feel like, as everyone who’s read this, I spend the first half of the book annoyed & angry & frustrated. Mei’s parents are so strict and overprotective all the time. When she was with Darren, though, my heart warmed and I couldn’t stop smiling. And by the end, my eyes were watery
(I know?!?! Me and my heartless soul?!?!)and I couldn’t stop thinking about how Chao was able to create an incredibly complex family dynamic that made me feel so much. This book was a rush of emotions.
- Mei & Darren. Needless to say, Darren is adorable. He’s kind, understanding and a total nerd. Their relationship blossoms in a way that had me literally gushing and it even reminded me of K-drama dynamics: confessing, holding hands, having a first kiss. They were flirty and cute and sweet and I’m going to stop talking now.
- Mei was too American to be Chinese, too Chinese to be American. I love when books get to explore the identity crisis that I believe most immigrants’ kids feel in their bones. Even though I don’t personaly relate, it still hits deep. I can’t imagine going through my life always feeling in the middle and this book made me feel intensely for Mei as she tries to navigate Chinese traditions and American culture.
- The family aspect had the perfect amount of duality. The thing is: Mei’s parents are strict and very, very traditional. This could’ve been an easy book to write: how Mei feels trapped and therefore hates her parents and what they put her under. In reality, though, it is much more complicated than that. Mei feels guilty because she’s going against them; she loves them and is so grateful for their sacrifices. There’s a specific scene where she remembers a childhood moment when one of her classmates said something rude about her parents; and even if that was true, she still defended them with all she had. Her love for her parents was immense, despise how much she disagreed with them, how much she was hurt by their treatment. And following that struggle and that duality was such an emotional ride.
- This book made me think. A lot. I’m always on board for a thought-provoking read and American Panda was definitely that. There are a lot of conversations about motherhood and the role of women in a traditional family. Mei’s mom was such an interesting character; though I disagreed with most of her actions and sayings, it was beautiful to see more layers of her by the end of the novel. It made me reflect a lot on how mothers are such unique and precious creatures, and made me feel a lot more grateful to my own mom too.
- The identity was on point! This book is sooooo Chinese everywhere. There are a bunch of Chinese words, traditions, sayings. To someone who’s not familiarized with the culture at all, this book was fascinating and very immersive.
I think my only fault with this book (as I loved it so deeply) was the writing style. I recognize that it was confusing at times, and probably more digressive than I would like. Also, I swear to God, every time a character laughed it would be followed by: She laughs – a deep, loud laugh. Apparently, all laughs are required a description.
Also, the fact the book throws us into a talk about vaginas, rashes, herpes and chlamydia by Chapter 3 was a bit off. I didn’t even know enough about the characters to be that *deep* into the conversations, but oh well.
Overall, I loved American Panda. I will say, though, I don’t believe even for a second that Mei’s story represents the story of all Asian-Americans out there. And I don’t even think the book was trying to tell you that. As the author mentions in the acknowledgments, this was based off of hers and close-friends’ experience and obviously does not represent the majority of the Asian-American community. In fact, she encourages more representation on books, to be able to tell all these other stories that are different from hers.
What I’m trying to say is that even though I loved this book to pieces, I understand some may not. Or some will try to say that it’s perpetuating a false stereotype. But, at the end of the day, everyone has an unique story to tell, and Mei’s was just one of many.
My final rating:
Have you ever read American Panda? And what are your thoughts on it? (Also, I apologize for the longest review of my life. Apparently, I can never shut up, moreover about books I like!).