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?
I picked up American Panda because I had heard a lot of positive feedback from Asian American book bloggers about how relatable it was and how stinking cute the cover was. Even though the synopsis sums up the book pretty well, I was still pleasantly surprised by what I got reading the book. It was a very fast read for me and I had a hard time putting it down, finishing the book in just two sittings.
The book follows Mei, a first generation Asian American struggling with the cultural clash that comes with having a traditional Taiwanese family. While I can’t speak personally on the authenticity of the Taiwanese American experience, I can say that I was able to relate to this book on a level I didn’t expect being a mixed race Filipino American. Mei is a well developed character—she’s smart, struggles with anxiety and germaphobia, has several interests, and strong opinions but still tries her hardest to appease her family and their desires. She is under constant pressure from her family to be the perfect daughter and the crushing guilt that comes with suppressing her inner dreams and desires in order to stay in the family.
The romance between Mei and and Darren was adorable and awkward and made my heart soar, but I’m also glad that it wasn’t the central focus of the novel. Though both characters are Asian American, there is a distinct difference between Mei and Darren’s attitudes toward family due to the generational gap. I thought this was a good detail that isn’t often explored in books that talk about the Asian American experience, and so I appreciated that this theme was explored. Darren is able to relate on some level to Mei and understands her internal conflict, but at the same time he doesn’t, and that’s something that I’ve struggled with myself with dating.
The format of the novel was also very cute, with skipped chapters due to superstitions, humorous voicemails from Mei’s family, and text bubbles for her text messages. It is a nice added touch that I was happy to see and helps give this book that extra bit of charm.
I only really have two criticisms for the book, and one of them really just has to do with the fact that I’m older. The book has a lot of toilet humor and tons of STD jokes that made me roll my eyes a little bit. Given the target audience though it’s understandable and I recognize that this part of the novel just isn’t for me. The other notable thing is the pacing, which was a little disjointed which is again understandable since it is the author’s first book. I struggled with it at first, but the story pacing gets better in the latter half of the book.
Overall this was a fun and fluffy debut and was a story that I was needing more than I realized. I definitely look forward to reading more by Chao in the future!
Strengths: Extremely relatable, sweet romance
Weaknesses: Pacing, crude jokes
Warnings: Mild language