Published by Simon Pulse on February 6th 2018
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Contemporary, Diversity, Own Voices, Romance, Young Adult
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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?
American Panda is a novel that I have been eagerly awaiting since I first saw the cover reveal and learned about the book. It’s about a Taiwanese girl, Mei, with huge pressure from her family to become a doctor and marry a high-achieving Chinese guy (preferably a doctor), despite the fact that Mei is afraid of germs and has a crush on a Japanese boy at college. The novel is full of stinky tofu, dim sum and dumplings, and a sweet, sweet romance. We all loved the book so much that we decided to do a discussion review for it.
Jenna: American Panda just speaks to my heart! There hasn’t really been another book that I’ve related to as much as this one. While there were certain things that happened in the book that have never and would never happen to me, the connection that I felt with Mei was so strong and her story was so familiar to me, that I couldn’t help but love the book.
Jeann: I completely agree! I could totally understand where Mei was coming from, struggling with traditional Asian parents who are strict, and also wanting to embrace her individuality based on Western ways. This was something I struggled with so much while growing up, and I’m so glad that it’s now something that Asian teens (or even any teen really) can relate to.
Aila: I can’t emphasize how important American Panda is to current and future Chinese readers. It breaks down the stereotypes that are commonly given to East Asian characters and just breathes life into them. We’re more than our grades, our traditional values, and our food. We’re people struggling to balance our identities and heritage – sometimes caught between two contrasting worlds. I thought Mei’s characterization really highlighted this struggle while she started her first year of college (like I am, right now!).
Career and Relationship Pressures
Jenna: The college aspect was something that I absolutely loved about the book. Being an Australian, I’ve obviously had a much different experience (most people I know don’t really move away for university unless they have to), but I really related to how much Mei disliked being at a college that was so close to home, while at the same time being really grateful to be able to see her family so often. And that’s something that I really connected with because I’ve never had the freedom that I’ve wanted to have but also really enjoy being close to family and the benefits of living at home. The career pressures that Mei had was something that I’ve thankfully never had to be under, but again, it was relatable because many other Asian families that I know have placed pressure on their kids to either be lawyers or doctors. I think Jeann might be able to relate to going to university at an earlier age than 18.
Jeann: Yes going to university/college before 18 was definitely something that I related to, especially since my parents were still overprotective when I went to uni. One thing that some people have described as “over the top” but was actually really relatable to me, was the rebelling against the parents and needing to set your boundaries. In American Panda, Mei wants to teach dance instead of pursuing medicine (which is impossible given her OCD with germs), as well as staying in touch with her brother. Her parents are appalled and threaten to cut off her trust fund. My parents actually did the same when I moved out with my boyfriend (now husband) of 6 years, even though I was in my mid-20s and not married at the time. Family felt really stifling to Mei, especially as she tried to carve out her own life and pursue her own passions (and boyfriend, who wasn’t exactly what her parents expected). That’s something that a lot of us can relate to in one way or another.
Jenna: That really resonated with me too because my boyfriend isn’t who my parents expected or wanted either. For a little while during my undergraduate days, my mum would try to set me up with her friends’ sons or try to instill in me how much she wanted a Chinese son-in-law. I had to make myself heard and I loved the way that Mei stood up for herself and what she wanted. I absolutely loved that Mei decided to pursue her own dreams rather than her parents even after seeing how her parents had cut her older brother off for not obeying their wishes. It’s so important to be able to live the life that you want to live and this book perfectly gets this message across.
Jeann: I know Aila related a lot to the overbearing parental style of Mei’s mother, and to some extent I did as well. One thing I really appreciated about American Panda was how it covered the inevitable distance that you have with your parents – one, not being incredibly fluent with the language and two, not fully being aware of the sacrifices that our parents made when they decided to migrate overseas. I’ve always been envious of those who have been close to their parents, but I definitely understood how the pressure to fit into the Western world directly conflicted with Asian parent’s traditional values – eg. accepting individuality over direct obedience. Mei’s “tiger mum” was definitely portrayed in an over-the-top manner with wry humour, particularly the chapter breaks with her voice messages, but in actual fact, her nature hits close to home for many. I also loved the close relationship Mei had with her estranged brother – there’s no one else who truly understands what you’re going through when you’ve got dramatic family antics at hand, and I really related to her need to reconnect with him.
Jenna: The thing that I really connected with was the tiptoeing around your grandparents aspect of the book. It’s something that most children of Asian descent (and probably most children in general) have dealt with and Mei is no exception. You can really feel her inner struggles as she tries to placate her family and respect her grandmother while trying to still be herself and pursue the things and relationships that she wants.
Aila: Agreed with all your points Jeann and Jenna! The family aspects felt a bit dramatic at times, but I feel like it was also needed. I remember seeing a review going like, “I found it unrealistic how people would judge Mei based on her heritage/ancestral line and vice versa with Mei’s family,” or along those lines. But that stuff is surprisingly common in the East Asian community, especially because of political tensions in the past. To this day, my grandfather reminds me of the tragedies that happened because of Japanese people and I have Taiwanese friends who clearly mark their distinction to being Taiwanese, not mainland Chinese. I guess I just want to highlight I see non-East Asian readers regard this book as “unrealistic,” but many points of it are our lives, and that should not be ignored just because a reader is not familiar with those situations or dynamics.
Jenna: I absolutely agree. My grandparents also constantly used to remind me of all the suffering they had to endure because of the Japanese, and how my grandmother lost 3 of her sisters in WWII. It’s a real thing that still happens and I think if you grew up in a Chinese family, you will definitely relate to some part of the novel. There were some parts that were a little dramatic to me but they were based on real things that do happen to people, and especially those still growing up in China or other Asian countries. I’ve been listening to Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan on audiobook and those books show just how much family, reputation and lineage matter.
Jeann: YES, I agree with you both! It’s definitely not unheard of to have tensions with other Asian cultures due to WWII. It wasn’t that long ago when the War happened, especially when it happened to our parents and grandparents, so I’m really glad that American Panda didn’t gloss over these very real prejudices that still exist – especially when it’s something so far removed from second-generation immigrants. That’s something that my dad likes to remind me as well.
The novel was really fast paced and I enjoyed the writing. While it wasn’t the most sophisticated prose of all time, I thought it read really easily. I also loved the formatting of the book and the little dumpling illustrations. I really enjoyed Mei’s story and related to so many aspects of her life, as did Jeann and Aila. And of course, I loved all the mentions of dumplings, dimsum and hot chocolate!
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy.
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