American Panda by Gloria Chao is an #OwnVoices Taiwanese-American young adult contemporary novel about a seventeen-year-old MIT freshman named Mei. We follow Mei on her journey through the struggles that she has, pertaining specifically to obeying parental expectations—such as her becoming a doctor and marrying a smart Taiwanese boy with good prospects—versus pursuing her own aspirations—being a dancer and falling in love with a non-Taiwanese boy. Secrets and internalisation of guilt and selfishness began to weigh heavily on Mei until she reconnects with her exiled brother and learns a serious lesson on what it means to be true to herself and to others around her.
American Panda blew my fucking mind. Admittedly, I didn’t have much hope for this book because I have read a lot of young adult contemporaries and I almost never love or adore any of them. Examples of some that I did devote my heart to include Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali and… so far I think that is it, actually. However, American Panda has now been tossed onto the shelf of lovelies with Ms Ali’s debut novel because it struck home for me in many ways that I was not expecting it to, even bringing me to tears with complete empathy and understanding.
I also confess that I was quite hesitant in picking this book up due to the hype surrounding it as well as some of the mixed reviews that I had read. Nevertheless, all of those reviews spoke of the representation being very authentic. So, when I found it at the library, I grabbed it without hesitation. Good representation of diverse experiences is a huge weakness for me. After sitting down and blowing through it, not only am I surprised by what I’ve read, I’ve discovered a book that I will cherish until my last breath.
Okay, I could gush about this book forever and ever, but allow me to do it from a technical stand-point. The facets that come together to create such a marvellous narrative include: Mei as our imperfect protagonist; the various themes on family obligations versus personal passions; motifs relating to the cultural constructs that create a large disparity between first, second, and even third generation Asian-American families; the oppression that stems from blind conservatism, and the cute, nerdy romance. Yes, that’s right, you read me correctly: I enjoyed the romance.
Mei is the best part of the book. She is flawed and flubbed and I loved her. Some of the superficial things I liked about Mei was that she wears glasses, she has an awkward mole and a big nose, and she’s not super thin. Some of the more internal things I treasured include: she’s obsessed with being clean and hates germs, she has a great sense-of-humour, and she loves her family profoundly yet it still able to recognise their harmful beliefs and actions, specifically its effects on her. Her development from the first page to the finale was very natural, delightfully ungraceful, and inspiringly brave.
I’ve read that some people didn’t care for her because they felt her experiences and situations were too exaggerated and unrealistic. That is bullshit. There are many people, specifically Asian-Americans, that can attest to how very real Mei’s experiences are. I mean, I could relate to her so intimately that there were moments when I felt someone had dove into the darkest parts of my life, taken the pages buried beneath, and brought them to the surface. Aside from the culture-specific differences between Mei and myself (Taiwanese-Chinese vs Indian-Polynesian), everything else was nearly identical. I do believe that not everyone with an Asian or Asian-American background will relate to this book as experiences are unique to the individuals themselves. But to say that the events and experiences within the pages of American Panda are fake and over-exaggerated is insulting and offensive to people who have had or are undergoing lives akin to Mei’s.
The pressure that her parents place on her to be this perfect little Asian girl is extremely real and so overbearing. I remember when I was her age, I was never allowed to make a single mistake or error in judgment for fear of the backlash I’d face from other people’s perceptions of me (i.e.: their perceptions of my parents). This included simply talking to a boy for more than five minutes without my parents standing next to me (they could be in the same room). That conversation could be construed as evidence of me somehow wanting to have sex with them or vice versa. They wanted me to have a career that would involve superior financial stability like being a doctor or a lawyer, and anything else was a waste of my potential. Whatever choices I made, I was constantly reminded that there were always others in the family who had made “poor” choices and were suffering from extreme criticism and gossip circulating through the familials. Additionally, there’s that line between what you want to do for yourself and what you feel you must do for the people who sacrificed to give you a better life, which is a fucking terrifying and conscious-waning one. It was quite literally in every choice I made from the food I ate to the books I read and the clothes I wore. Nothing escaped judgment or the possibility of culturally-laced lectures on how I would end up in Hell for choosing incorrectly.
Before, I had blamed my culture, but that wasn’t the problem. It was so much more complicated than that. It was a clashing of personalities and interpretations of cultures. How would my parents and I ever find a solution to this impossible mix of opposing ideals and desires?
Do these things seem unbelievably egregious and improbable? For many people who were not raised or brought up in such environments, yes, I believe I can understand how it would seem like a terrible fantasy. Yet for many others, it was reality, it was life, and it still very much is.
Mei’s very candid and blunt narration of the difficulties that she encountered in wanting to be true to herself whilst working to appease her parents’ ridiculous expectations were vibrant, so excellently honest, and passionately authentic. She weighs the logistics of the beliefs instilled in her from birth versus beliefs that she acquired from life experiences and living as an American in ways that make her question things that she was taught. Nonetheless, asking questions makes her out to be a person who is “straying from her family and her duties,” and is immediately shot down. Most of that has to do with the severe oppression that women in conservative societies are faced with, the ultimatum of bowing your head and obeying every command without question or being labelled as immorally offensive people to be avoided at all costs. Even though these subjects are heavy and serious, Mei’s commentary and use of humour as a defence mechanism help lighten the tone, making it wonderfully accessible to young readers and readers outside of the specified cultures alike. This is the meat of the entire book and one of the reasons that I wish I had a book like American Panda available to me when I was her age.
…it was a special brand of disgrace, responsibility, and shame bred by an environment where most things you did weren’t good enough and unconditional obedience was expected.
American Panda really brings a voice to daunting circumstances that are nigh impossible to explain to outsiders. It takes the reader deep beneath the fabrics of “perfect Asian kids and families” to show the strain that individual kids from these sorts of cultural circles undergo in order to put up and maintain that air of utmost transcendence. I pointed to the some of the pages during my reading excursion and blurted aloud, “Yes! Exactly! That is so bloody difficult to explain to people!” It was an all-encompassing feeling of comfort and gratitude that I have never encountered while reading before. It was bloody brilliant.
The romance was very cute. Interactions between Mei and her love interest, Darren, are nerdy and sweet. I felt myself smiling at some of their interactions, specifically the ones about nuts and hot chocolates, because Sir Betrothed and I still have mindless chatter about things like that, going back and forth in our unusual banter. It is fluffy, heart-warming, and a welcome break to the more oft-times stifling subject matter. Darren also challenges Mei in ways that Mei is too frightened to do on her own. When you can find someone that forces you to think about life when you’d much rather run away from it, and they do it to help you become the best version of yourself, you know that you have found someone bloody fantastic, whether it is romantic or platonic. It’s also quite uncommon to read about a girl who doesn’t sacrifice her whole identity for her love interest, or to have a love interest who isn’t self-serving and disrespectful to women, as is the typical YA formula.
The writing style is smooth, simple, and straightforward. There is no dillydallying around the main points or the inherent messages being conveyed. They are displayed to the audience in its most bare and basic form, which, once more, makes it excellently accessible to all sorts of readers, as well as plays parallel to Mei’s honest voice. It also makes it the ideal novel to pick-up if you are searching for an easy read, a book to help get you out of a reading slump, and/or if you want to read something quickly.
If there are any flaws or short-comings to mention about American Panda, you ain’t going to find them in my review because I loved every bleeding part of it. Although I would suggest that future editions have a scratch-and-sniff element to the cup of hot chocolate on the cover. That would be so cool.
All in all, I probably cannot recommend American Panda enough. If you are a young adult reader, and if you are also an Asian-American who may have similar struggles (whatever their level of intensity), I recommend that you read this book. It will enlighten you and give you courage and hope. If you’re not a youngster, then you should bloody well read it anyway! Even though I am decidedly not a young adult person, American Panda found me at the absolute most perfect time in my life and it helped me with making some difficult choices about my future and aspirations, as well as making me accept myself for all that I am!