American Panda by Gloria Chao -A Book Review

AMERICAN PANDA cover hi-res

This book caught my eye while I was in the middle of a Target run. It’s been a long time since I saw a YA book with an Asian-American protagonist. Not since Fresh Off The Boat by Melissa de la Cruz to be exact. This book, however, has a Chinese-American protagonist who is starting out college at the tender age of 17 and finds herself torn between the life that she wants and the life that her parents have planned for her.

Family loyalty is a theme that I can relate to, being Filipino, so Mei’s struggles are totally something I can relate to. She falls asleep during Biology class and has a mild case of mysophobia (fear of germs), which already deters her parent’s plans for her to be a doctor. On top of that, she teaches traditional Chinese dance classes to earn some extra money and develops a crush on a Japanese classmate.

(Side note: Never have I ever been so happy to be Filipino because as traditionalist as Filipinos can be, they are majorly easygoing compared to Mei’s parents and relatives!)

She tries to make the best of both worlds, to the point that she is almost living a double life. On the one hand, she visits her parents every weekend and tries to be the dutiful daughter, even as her family life spirals out of control when her estranged brother announces his wedding. The reason her older brother is estranged is because he plans to marry a woman whose odds of having kids are low at best.

In spite of her parents’ disapproval, Mei reconnects with her brother and tries to explore what it could be like to be a doctor, since her brother is in med school. She also looks into the life of a doctor through a fellow Chinese-American doctor who works close to the MIT campus. Sadly, she can’t find the life appealing and fears that she will become empty inside, losing everything she loves in the name of family duty.

Now I know what you 21st century millenials are thinking: What is the big deal?! In America, rebellious teenagers who cut themselves off from the family to pursue their dreams are a dime a dozen. The thing is, though, that for Mei, and for a lot of Asian-Americans (myself included), family is very important to us. Our lives may be as dysfunctional as an ABC family sitcom, but we still want to make our parents happy.

This book shows that family loyalty is a two-way street. Even though children being loyal to their parents is shown as serious business, it also implies that parents have to be more open-minded to what their children want and at least meet them halfway. Mei learns that she doesn’t have to go through the extremes, one way or the other, in order to be happy. By the end of the book, Mei gets to have the best of both her worlds, even if it’s on a bittersweet note. I like to think that in the long run, her parents eventually accept the life she has chosen and also bring her brother back into the fold, even if it flies in the face of strict tradition.

I love the supporting characters in this book, especially Ying-Na AKA Christine Chu. At first, you think Ying-Na is just some urban legend. In fact, she’s this book’s version of Margaret Cho, a childhood friend of Mei’s who became a stand-up comedian. (For some reason, I imagine Gong Li from Memoirs of a Geisha playing her if this book ever became a movie.) Mei’s parents can be seen as awful, but it’s implied that they will soften up eventually. Mei’s brother is endearing in how he tries to stick to tradition even when he gets cut off from the family. Darren Takahashi is a great love interest, even though I think being 6 feet is kinda unrealistic by Asian standards. (And this is coming from a girl whose own grandfather was 6 ft and had a great uncle who was taller than that.)

What I love best, though, is Mei. She is not your typically beautiful Asian-American. She’s fat, somewhat flat-chested, and has what she describes as a “man-laugh.” She’s not perfect, but she at least tries her best and she’s a totally endearing character. I love how Chao described her near-sightedness, too, and I’m shocked that Mei doesn’t wear glasses! I related to her so much, even if some of the stuff she said got lost in cultural translation. (What’s the big deal between MIT vs Dartmouth?)

I highly recommend this book to any Asian-American young adult, but I also challenge Asian parents to read this as well. I think this book is a great way of understanding the struggle Asian-American teenagers have in establishing their identity and not defining it by their family or tradition alone.

 

 

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