American Panda is the YA book I wish I could’ve read when I was a teen. I loved and related to Mei so much as a character, and it was such a wonderful, emotional journey to see her deal with her parents’ expectations, her brother’s estrangement from the family, and her crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi.
Mei is a 17 year old second generation Taiwanese American girl in her first year at MIT, and all her parents want for her is to become a doctor, marry a nice Taiwanese boy and, in order to attract the nice Taiwanese boy, lose some weight. As her mother not-so-kindly puts it, Mei is somewhat like a panda, when she really should become more like a cat to attract boys. Another problem is that Mei hates germs and is bored to death in biology class, so the idea of medical school is her worst nightmare, never mind actually becoming a full-fledged doctor. She much prefers to dance, which her parents let her study as a child to help her lose weight, but which she now pursues in secret. Mei is all too aware of the potential consequences of disobeying her parents — her older brother Xing was disowned by the family when he got engaged to someone they didn’t approve of. When Mei secretly reconnects with Xing, she begins to wonder if being such a good daughter is even worth it, if it means giving up her chance at the life she actually wants.
How much do I love this book? There’s so much I love about it, but I think what really resonated with me the most was Mei’s relationship with her mother and brother. Despite some pretty callous comments, Mei’s mother isn’t a cruel person, but rather someone trapped within many of the same social constructs she in turn tries to impose on Mei. Her mother is from a generation and a culture that privileges traditional family roles, which includes respect (read: obedience) for elders and for the man’s position as head of the family. As the story progresses and we, along with Mei, get to know her mother better, we realize how much of what she says may not necessarily be what she feels, but rather what she has been taught as the right thing to feel. Chao’s brilliance as a writer is perhaps most evident in the character of Mei’s mother, as the woman we initially see to be the most insurmountable barrier to Mei’s freedom turns out to be one of, if not the, most sympathetic characters in the novel. Put simply, I’d read an entire novel from her perspective, as even after finishing American Panda, I find myself still so fascinated by all the layers in this character that have yet to be peeled away.
Mei’s relationship with her brother is another extremely strong feature of the story, as I loved seeing the contrast between the lives both were living. I also loved seeing the tension both siblings feel, as they want the freedom to live the life they choose, but at the same time, can’t escape the strong ties to their family. Xing’s detachment from their parents was clearly not his preference, and even though he and his wife were treated very badly, he still clearly feels a connection to the family. I love this relationship because it puts into context the terrible extent of the dilemma facing Mei. Would it be worse to never be able to speak to your parents again, or to have to put up with a career you hate for the rest of your life? Her dilemma felt distinctly Asian American, both aspects of her culture warring for dominance, and that’s a hell of a burden for a 17 year old girl.
I also liked the realness of the body image part of the story. Mei’s family often comments on the food she eats, and how she really should refrain from a second helping of rice, and I don’t know if it’s an Asian family thing or a family thing in general, but the dialogue felt so completely familiar. Also in another scene, a cab driver tells Mei she can’t be Chinese, because she’s too chubby to be Chinese, and for anyone who thinks that level of rudeness is unrealistic, let me tell you: it happens, and I love Gloria Chao for writing about it. Most of all, I love that Mei never develops an eating disorder nor does she obsess over her weight beyond being understandably uncomfortable by what people say. In this, Mei is both relatable and aspirational.
Finally, the romance with Darren was a minor subplot compared to the family drama, but I loved it anyway. I thought their flirtation was adorable, and I have to admit, I got all kilig in that scene where Darren takes her to a spot in MIT where a pair of walls make the sunset particularly incredible.
I simply adored this book and its cover art, and I absolutely loved Mei. American Panda is such a treat from start to finish, and I highly recommend reading it with a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.