I’m trying to pull all my jumbled thoughts together about American Panda and it’s so hard! Because I really, really enjoyed reading this debut #ownvoices book!
I just heard about American Panda sometime in January and I’m so glad it slid into my radar. Not only was it diverse, but it was an intense, fun book.
Also, this book is super cute? Light blue & cute little dumplings. *love*
American Panda by Gloria Chao
5 Stars // Published February 2018
Synopsis from Goodreads
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?
All the Taiwanese/Chinese Culture!
From the very first chapter, this story was steeped in Taiwanese culture. I instantly could smell the stinky tofu, and I totally agreed with Mei. That stuff smells inedible. And I have no interest in tasting it. At all.
Now, if you’ve never been to China Town and live close by, you NEED to visit right away and immerse yourself in all things Chinese. Or be like me and spend a month in Shanghai, because that totally works too.
Reading this book, I felt like I stepped into Chinatown every time Mei visited Chinatown. I was there with her, the swirling red color everywhere, the sticky rice and food smells, the noisy mix of Chinese and English. And every time she mentioned chopsticks clicking together, I wanted to laugh! Because it felt so real and authentic!
I loved feeling all these Chinese feels. And I think it’s so cool this book was released during Chinese New Year???
All of Mei’s Personality
Ok, Mei is so unique! I love her voice, she was funny and sassy and really relatable.
I liked how Mei is brilliant without being over-the-top. She sleeps in biology! Ok, that’s completely me. Though, Mei can still get a passable grade and sleep through biology. I just barely pass the class.
Mei’s germophobia was also really interesting. I don’t think I’ve read about character working through a fear of germs? I was kind of awed by how Mei dealt with hating germs in an environment where germs are everywhere. I think I would go insane.
Growing into Independence
This story isn’t just a growing up story. All the pressure Mei is under makes my chest ache and heart race. It’s anxiety inducing.
In fact, I wanted to scream several things. The pressure and restrictions were just wrong. The constant messaging from her mother made me really, really frustrated.
I appreciated how much Mei loved her parents and wanted to respect them. She’s not running away from her upbringing but she is trying to become an adult. I loved this journey.
Now, it is nauseating what happens. This is probably the most anxiety inducing book I have ever read. The social pressure and response from her parents was just wrong. All the stuff Mei dealt with were stressful for her and me as a reader.
Sadly, I was confused by some things. I felt like there were several things brought up and never really explained? Like the stuffed bear? I never got that joke? Did she actually tell the whole story or just keep referencing it? Maybe I missed the actual story.
Also, if you’re not very familiar with Chinese/Taiwanese/Japanese cultural and historical conflicts this story could be very confusing really quick.
Very early on, Mei’s Taiwanese roommate accuses her of being an invader. Because her family apparently immigrated to Taiwan when Mao took over China? And I don’t know what happened to the native Taiwanese but apparently they didn’t appreciate it? Anyway, that was mentioned and was kind of confusing? Not kind of, it was confusing.
I do know quite a bit about Japanese/Chinese relations. But for someone who doesn’t, it might be confusing why Mei’s mom hates her Japanese friend.
Mei – So, I’ve already mentioned how much I loved Mei’s personality. She felt so real and I loved her style. She was cute and brainy without being too brainy? Which is kind of strange because she is at Massachusetts Institute of Technology which is literally the definition of brainy.
Darren – Japanese and so adorable. Also, he likes hot chocolate more than coffee. Darren was a pretty cute addition to the story and I enjoyed his growing friendship with Mei. He was so supportive and understanding!
Xing – Mei’s brother. I loved Xing. he’s probably my favorite character in the entire book. (Shouldn’t Mei be my favorite? I don’t know. Hides)
Anyway, Xing is sweet and tries so hard. He’s also super excited to be a doctor and I loved his enthusiasm! It was so refreshing. Also, his girlfriend is a gem.
Mei’s Mom – This is the best and hardest part of the story – Mei’s fractured, growing relationship with her mom. It’s heartbreaking the way her in-laws treat her and the absolute ridicule for woman Mei’s mom experience.
Also, the Chinese gossip vine is so funny. Much more effective and faster than Facebook.
What makes this story so perfect is how personal it feels. The author mentions that she draws this story from multiple stories she has heard in her community over the years. It feels real. It made me cry, feel Mei’s fear, and appreciate Taiwanese-American culture even more.
Also, I appreciated how the author didn’t condemn the strictness of Mei’s parents. The problem wasn’t the culture but their attitude. Creating their entire identity around the success of their children.
The way Chao wrote through this was heartbreaking and beautiful. I highly recommend this book. Also, it will make you crave real Chinese food. Especially the dumplings.
Have you read American Panda?
Of you live near one, do you like visiting China Town? Have you ever tried stinky tofu? Or visited Massachusetts Institute of Technology?