I’m so excited to be participating in the blog tour for American Panda! It’s one of my FAVORITE 2018 reads and gets extra points from me because it’s YA set in college (which I love)! I’m thrilled to share all of the things I loved about this debut with you today!
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.American Panda by Gloria Chao
Published by Simon Pulse on February 6th 2018
Genres: Coming of Age, Contemporary, Family, Young Adult
Pages: 320 •Source: NetGalley
An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.
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?
A huge thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing an ARC via NetGalley!
Don’t let the adorable cover fool you- American Panda was the first 2018 novel I’ve read, and it’s also one of the most honest, interesting, and evocative books I’ve ever read regarding struggling to find your identity amidst the pressures of your family and culture. Gloria Chao’s debut novel blew me away with its ability to tell a story that depicts the struggle of living between two cultures and generations so well. There’s a lot to unpack in this contemporary coming of age story, and I can’t wait to impress upon your why this story is worth reading no matter what type of family or cultural background you come from.
First and foremost, this book is about family- dealing with their expectations, developing an identity against theirs, growing within the confines that they’ve placed and perpetuated. Mei’s life is defined and decided by her family and Taiwanese culture, no questions asked. Her obedience is as much a part of her personality as her her favorite food or beloved hobby, and it rules her behavior and sense of self even when her parents aren’t around. Though I didn’t grow up in a Taiwanese household, I did grow up in a fairly strict Latin household, and it was so refreshing to see Mei’s culture and family play such a big role in her plot and character development, both for better and for worse, a huge shift from the stereotype of the ever-absent YA parents. From Mei’s anxiety about “What will my parents think?” or “What if my parents find out?” to the sometimes tactless or crazy yet well meaning ideas and opinions that her family has, it resonated with my own upbringing and brought back the sharp feelings of pride and shame that I felt as a teenager whenever I wanted something different than what was expected of me by my relatives and/or culture. That feeling is such a pivotal part of being a young adult and growing up, and it’s explored constantly and in many different shapes an scenarios in this novel.
Mei’s story also focuses on the very important juxtaposition of both loving and resenting your family, and splits things into shades of grey that you start to see once you begin transitioning out of high school and into college. Yes, her father is unmoving and uncompromising in his expectations, but is it because of his own trauma from his childhood? Yes her mother often makes wildly inappropriate comments about people’s appearances and career choices, but is it driven by her own fears of the consequences her children will face if they veer from the predetermined path? Mei’s anxieties and inner turmoil over her family’s wants and her own take up a large portion of the novel, but as Mei grows into her own personality and starts to recognize and pursue her own passions, she also learns jarring secrets and hidden details about her family’s past that cause her to have to shift her perspective again and again, which honestly happens so often as you become an adult, and I applaud Chao for adding in these shifts in perspective and creating multidimensional characters.
American Panda takes place during Mei’s freshman year at MIT, and I LOVED the setting. I’m always hunting for more YA books set in college (because that young adult stage lasts well into your 20s, trust me), and the personal touches Chao integrated about the campus really created a vivid landscape for the novel (I haven’t been to MIT myself, but feel like if I ever went I would already know where some of the coolest spots were, like the walkway with the benches that play with and magnify sounds, and I could keep up well enough with the MIT vernacular). The novel also captures so many of those college firsts so well- that first dreaded trip to the on campus clinic, the first time not living in your house and realizing randomly paired roommates can be the WORST thing ever, the first time you come face to face with your planned career path and realize it is not the right path for you. I felt like I was reliving my not fantastic freshman year of college with Mei, but it also made me nostalgic to do it all over again.
Talking About the Tough Stuff
Given the cute cover and funny title, I was surprised to find that not only does American Panda has a huge amount of depth to its story, but it also tackles a lot of tough issues and doesn’t shy away from the gross or uncomfortable aspects of being in college or learning about your body or even being pre-med. For instance, Mei’s germaphobia is pretty prevalent to her character (and a key reason why she cannot go through with being a doctor), and it’s mentioned several times throughout the novel- not just in passing, but it impacts Mei’s day to day life and her relationships and is a consistent part of her personality rather than a character personality quirk. There’s also quite a few scenes in the school clinic that reinforce the importance of personal hygiene and personal protection when living in a college dorm with hundred of other students or engaging in physical intimacy with others. The novel also deals with emotionally difficult topics too- the resentment and conflict when a family member that you love holds a belief that you find deeply offensive, the grief and conflicting emotions when a family member passes away, the feeling of bouncing between two cultures and never fully fitting into one (there’s a scene in the beginning when Mei s unfamiliar with Star Wars references because she wasn’t allowed to watch the movies growing up and her peers are shocked- it brought back all too well memories of constantly feeling behind on the times because I wasn’t allowed to watch things like MTV or Boy Meets World or even the news growing up).
Straddling the Knife’s Edge of Comedy and Tragedy
The novel’s synopsis bills it as a “laugh out loud contemporary,” and there were definitely some truly funny moments (even if they were born out of absurd family situations or Mei scrambling to keep all of her secrets straight). One scene that particularly had me in stitches is when Mei’s mother demands to know the names of everyone in Mei’s fictionalized study group (that she uses as a cover when she’s practicing dance or teaching dance classes) and she pulls inspiration from the Kardashians- when her mother asked about Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Kendall, I pretty much lost it with laughter (I love a good pop culture reference). Yet this humor is often used to counteract the seriousness/darkness of a lot of the plot elements, which include disownming, shame, anxiety, etc. and some pretty nasty family showdowns and scenes. Particularly intense is the relationship and associated scenes with Xing, Mei’s older brother who was literally disowned by his parents for dating someone they didn’t approve of. Chao’s writing navigates emotional disasters and fallouts so intense to be hard to read, then sneaks in humor to provide levity when the family drama threatens to become too much.
American Panda has some really unique formatting touches that really made the book stand out for me, and feel epistolary in nature. Each chapter starts out with a voicemail from Mei’s mother, which are often hilarious or sad (or both) and really help breathe life into her character. There’s also little notes from Mei at the beginning of certain chapters explaining things (such as why there’s no chapter number four) and the cover font is carried throughout, complete with an adorable doodle of a dumpling (I think- the dumpling is a running metaphor in the story) at the beginning of each chapter. Even reading an e-galley, these unique touches really shined through.
Overall: I went in expecting to like American Panda, but it completely exceeded all of my expectations. It’s a novel about family and identity and navigating through a strict culture and even stricter parents. It will resonate with any reader who felt stifled by their upbringing, or who wanted to deviate from the planned path, or who felt like they were straddling two cultures and/or generations growing up. It tackles culture and family drama in a brutal and blatant way that I’m extremely appreciative of, and I could not put Mei’s story down, finishing it in under 48 hours during the work week, an extremely unusual feat for me. I can’t wait to pick up my own copy and Chao is going to be a difficult 2018 debut novelist to beat.
About the Author!
Thanks so much to the Fantastic Flying Book Club for hosting this incredible tour, and for Gloria Chao for writing such a hilarious, deep, and compulsively readable book!