American Panda by Gloria Chao.
Simon Pulse, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2018.
YA Contemporary, 310 pages.
Not yet leveled.
Mei Lu might be only 17, but she’s also a college freshman at MIT, as per her parents’ ambitious plans. And she’s the only hope for them to fulfill their legacy, since they cut off her older brother years ago. There’s just one problem: Mei loves to dance (no longer allowed since she doesn’t need it for college applications anymore) and is absolutely terrified of blood, guts, and germs.
This was a targetpick. I wasn’t intending to be trendy and pick it up on the release date, but apparently did so by accident. The publisher lists it as suitable for 12+, but it really occupies a middle ground between young adult and new adult fiction. Mei is still a teen just learning about the world, but the book is also about her gaining her independence and in many ways she’s very mature and responsible. Some books in a middle space like this are challenging for either group to read, but I think this one will appeal to both.
An interesting aspect of this novel is how Mei works out the difference between her family’s unique culture, and Taiwanese culture in general. On her own, meeting other Asians and other students in general, and working out how to navigate the adult world, Mei realized that not all of the rules her parents laid down were Taiwanese, and that she can still have her culture without bowing to her parents’ every desire.
The title perfectly encapsulates Mei and her feelings about herself. Her mother often refers to her as a panda “lazy, round, and silly” (p. 6), but Mei is okay with her body and finds pandas adorable. She is American in many ways, especially compared to her family, but she also chooses panda as her primary descriptor. I always love a good title that grows in meaning as the book progresses, and Chao doesn’t abandon the label but returns to it with different meanings throughout.
The chapters are punctuated by voicemails from her family that are both hilarious and sadly realistic. Mandarin words are scattered throughout (written in pinyin), but I didn’t have any trouble following the story. I’m sure they would add even more meaning for someone who knows the language.
Mild Spoilers / Mei finds a position teaching dance to adopted Chinese children and is jealous of both their lives unencumbered by immigrant parents’ expectations and the way they integrate both cultures. However, she is also able to admire their freedom, and the bond gives her an “out” to continue teaching.
More Spoilers / The tight but complex relationship Mei has with various family members (including her estranged brother and his fiance) is a major dynamic of the novel, although there is a romance with a Japanese boy that reads more like a high school relationship since Mei is very new to dating and afraid of engaging in a forbidden romance. While the new and forbidden romance is fascinating to Mei, of equal tension and drama are the many scenes with her parents and other relatives and community members. / End of Spoilers
Mei’s family practices ancestor worship and operates under a particularly strict version of Taiwanese culture that gives her plenty of room to privately question aspects like the importance of sons over daughters. She even reacts positively to finding out that a minor character is lesbian, although I found that particular interaction a bit strained since the character never reappears. Mei is very nearsighted but doesn’t wear glasses, and suffers from an extreme fear of germs that could be either mysophobia or maybe OCD (it isn’t specified in the book).
Despite the publisher’s age recommendation, I’d suggest pre-reading before using this with younger students. It contains quite a few swears and many references to puberty, romantic relationships, STIs, and other mature themes that might be appropriate for some, but not all, students. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to add this to a high-school or college library.
Although I could have done without the romantic storyline, this lighthearted romp tackled some big topics as well. I’d like to see some #ownvoice reviews before wholeheartedly endorsing it (please link any you know of in the comments), but for now I’ll happily recommend.