by Gloria ChaoPublished by Simon Pulse
on February 6, 2018Genres: YA
, YA Contemporary Pages:
eARCSource: eARC via EdelweissGoodreads
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 germophobia 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?
But who does it represent?
- Mei and her family are Taiwanese
- The book is thoroughly entrenched in the Taiwanese-American experience
- Mei’s love interest Takumi is Japanese
- Large POC presence in the novel
- Minor QUILTBAG (specifically lesbian) and disability (endometriosis) presence
Does it need saying again that we need more YA set in college because the teens who go straight from high school to college need it and the themes of YA still resonate for them but no longer resemble their reality? YES IT DOES. Because we do need it for the reasons mentioned. Though Mei lives a very different reality than I did in my first year of college because we come from two disparate cultural backgrounds, American Panda is the story I needed during my first two years in college.
If you’re not Taiwanese-American or familiar with their culture, you’re going to be out of your depth to begin with. It’s defamiliarization in action as Mei’s everyday language clashes with your own until you get it and you’re fully sucked into her story. Took me about 50 pages or so. Mei’s problems with her family, specifically what they expect from her vs. what she wants and the ideological differences that deeply divide them, resonated deeply with me.
Those exact problems run so deep in my family that my older brother will be dead to me the day I move out the way Xing is dead to Mei’s parents and I’m planning to put serious limits on how much I communicate with my parents. Some of their beliefs are outright harmful to me and to people I care about. How am I supposed to just accept that and be okay with it? We’re not, as Mei shows us in her conflict with her parents. They can either understand her side and adjust or lose both their children.
Alongside Mei’s struggles with her cultural heritage and parents, she has the usual adventures of a college student. She discovers a really itchy rash down below, is wrongly diagnosed with herpes at the student medical center, and finds out it’s actually an allergic reaction to her pants when she sees a different doctor. I’ve been there except it was pain in my side instead of a rash around my vagina and they kept telling me it was psychosomatic pain when it was really a pulled muscle.
ANYWAY. She gets into shenanigans, has roommate issues, develops a crush, and explores her own interests now that she’s living on her own. Her parents are determined she’ll become a doctor and marry a good Taiwanese boy. Meanwhile, Mei can hardly stomach medical things and uses her newfound freedom to return to dancing as well as get back in contact with her brother. The experience of living on your own in college versus not going to college or even commuting instead of living on campus is a unique one and Mei makes the most of it.
It’s been approximately three centuries since I read American Panda and some details are fuzzy, but just thinking about the book induces feelings of joy and solidarity with Mei. Does that tell you enough about how good the book is?
Well, probably not. Sorry. You shouldn’t even be bothering with my rambling anyway, go read reviews from people who are actually Taiwanese/Taiwanese-American. I’m just hear tapping away at my laptop because I got a review copy and I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to: reviewing it. Nobody said I had to do it well!
If you read The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera and loved it, American Panda is that for Taiwanese-American girls. I LOVE THEM BOTH SO MUCH.
Oh, and if anyone comes out of this book thinking badly of Mei’s cultural heritage, they’re not reading it right. We see multiple examples of how different Taiwanese families hold onto cultural traditions to varying levels of strictness. Some are very easygoing, like Mei’s friend Helen’s family, and others are strict adherents to tradition like Mei’s family is.