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?
This review contains no spoilers.
This book was bought with my own money.
Trigger warnings// germophobia, racism, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, death, body horror, illness, bullying, toxic relationship. Please inform me if I have missed something and I will update this section.
I came across this book on Twitter right before it was going to be published. The first chapter was being shared to give people a taste of the book and after reading it, I decided I really wanted to read this book because of the writing style. The first chapter left me wanting to read more. I read this book pretty quickly, it has a nice pacing.
The book starts with an author’s note about the Mandarin words that are used throughout the book. She explains how to read pinyin and that she used her family’s accent. I think that’s very valuable and made it even more personal. I had no difficulty with the Mandarin words, because the context explained them (enough) to me. I totally understand that words in another/your own language have a different and more specific meaning than their (sometimes non-existent) English counterparts. And sometimes when Mei’s mother kept talking and talking, I didn’t mind if I didn’t 100% get what she was saying, because I got the same vibe from Mei herself, haha.
Another thing I liked was that there were small things in this story such as there being no chapter 4, because the number 4 sounds like ‘death’ in Mandarin. There are many other culturally things woven into this story, such as food (I really want to try out stinky tofy now, haha.), expressions and a wedding. But Gloria Chao wasn’t afraid to show the darker sides as well. Examples of this are Xing, Mei’s brother, who is dead to their parents, not being allowed to date the Japanese Darren because he’s not Taiwanese, and Mei being really afraid of telling her parents she doesn’t want to become a doctor.
Mei struggles with stereotypes. A quote from the book that illustrates this: “But I didn’t want to reduce my parents to shallow stereotypes. They may have done versions of what he was implying, but not in the same tone.” This is something she thinks after a random guy asks her if her parents made her play an instrument and if she had to study a lot. While Mei defends her culture a lot, she also notices things she starts to doubt. Another quote: “Holy shit, did we just travel a hundred years back?” But she also realises it’s not so black and white when she compares her life to childhood acquaintances who grew up with the same culture, but very differently at the same time.
American Panda balances dark and light elements really well. If I had to explain it in one sentence I would call it a book that handles rough situations with a little bit of humour. I definitely laughed a few times while reading this book, but it wasn’t like this book was really trying to be funny. Mei could just make some funny remarks and the banter between her and Darren was how talking to a nerdy crush should be like. Another thing I found funny (and sometimes concerning) were the many voicemails Mei’s mother left her.
I really liked Mei. She is a character with lots of different layers. Mei had to face a lot in this story, but it never felt like too much. I liked her strong voice, and I think she handled the difficult situations she was in quite well for a seventeen year old. Mei has great character development, which happens slowly but steadily. But it wasn’t just Mei who had character development, but I won’t go into detail for spoiler reasons.
Lastly I’d like to say that I really liked the romance in this book. I love it when romance doesn’t push the problems away and solves everything. Darren doesn’t always understand Mei’s family, but he tries to, and he supports Mei anyway while encouraging her to listen to her heart.
I hope this book finds lots of young adults who face the same or comparable difficulties and that they’ll see something of themselves in Mei. For those who do not see themselves in Mei, I hope you’ll still pick this book up because it is a really nice book that shows some different perspectives.