From the very first chapter of this book, I knew for a fact that this was going to wind up being a 5 star read. It’s been a while since a book has really captured my attention and made me fall in love quite the way American Panda has. I had a feeling it was going to be a fun interesting book, but I guess I didn’t know just how much until I actually picked it up and started reading. Then I was completely blown away by how much I loved it!
American Panda had so many laugh out loud moments, as well as so many tender, heartfelt moments with family and self-discovery that made it unique, fun, and sweet. I honestly didn’t know much about Chinese and Taiwanese culture before going into this book, so I was a bit worried that the fact that I didn’t have much background knowledge might affect my enjoyment of the book, but that wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, Gloria Chao really allows this book to be enjoyed by all readers – even those who might not be familiar with customs and the culture.
“Even with seventeen years of practice, I didn’t have a fighting chance against a dish named stinky tofu. I gagged. My mother sniffed and smiled. ‘Smells like home.’ Mmm. Who doesn’t love the scent of athlete’s foot with lunch?”
At the start of the book, we are introduced to Mei and her parents. Mei is a seventeen year old Taiwanese-American girl who is a student at MIT. Her parents have pushed her to become a doctor, and she believes that she must, because that is their wish, so she is struggling against making her parents happy, and trying to figure out how on earth she can possibly become a doctor when germs gross her out so much.
“By the end of the day, I was bathing in my own sweat. I didn’t know how I was going to do this – get through medical school, make this my life. A few hours and I was ready to immerse my entire body in a hand-sanitzer bath.”
Along with being pushed to become a doctor, her mother is always pushing her to find a husband (well, to meet one that she believes is suitable), and to keep herself looking slim and good so that she could be attractive for men. Her mother believes she has found the perfect guy for Mei, and she is always pushing her to meet him, despite her wants.
“I smiled, but it wasn’t because I thought Hanwei was cute. I could never date the boy who once peed on my foot. Sure, we were six at the time and in a car, but to me he would always be the boy who couldn’t control his bladder.”
She is also constantly reminded of her brother’s disownment, and the fact that she could never speak to him or see him again, all because of the woman that he chose. This makes Mei feel pressured to only date someone of the same culture as she, even though she finds herself slowly falling for someone her parents would never approve of.
“No one understood me or how hard this was. How I felt like I had to split myself in two, neither of them truly Mei, just to make everyone else happy.”
So what Mei decides to do is attempt to live two lives – one that allows her parents to be proud of her, hiding everything that makes her unique and happy, and the other she keeps for herself, including attempting to see her brother, acting on her feelings for a boy her mother and father would never approve of, and teaching dance classes, because that is where she feels happiest. However, since her parents would never allow any of these things, Mei starts to feel as though she is keeping too many secrets, and she is afraid her parents will disown her the way that they disowned her brother.
“Dance was the one place I truly belonged, where age, race, looks, and intelligence didn’t matter. I had pretended to continue dancing for my parents’ sakes – partly to earn brownie points but mostly because I was scared if they knew just how much I loved it, they would take it away. Dancers don’t make money, Mei.”
When Mei finds herself in need of speaking to her brother, just to see where it all went wrong and because she doesn’t believe he should have just been cast out in such an aweful way, she has to fight her parents wishes once again to do what she believes is right, keeping even more secrets.
“I could agree to stop seeing Xing and Darren, try harder in biology, stop teaching dance…Except I couldn’t. I had already tried. And failed. If I lied, the real me would disappear. I’d become that hollow shell, nothing more than the emptiness I saw in Dr. Chang.”
I loved Mei’s story – it was so heartwarming and it really made you appreciate your family, but it also gives readers a sense of empowerment, because although Mei is going behind her parents’ backs to do what she feels is necessary for her, she still does it. She wants to honor her parents’ wishes, of course, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to disappear and become someone she doesn’t recognize. And she really has no desire to eat stinky tofu. She also wants to make new friends, fall in love, and stand up for the things that she believes in.
The relationship that Mei had with her parents was interesting – especially with her mother. While you might think that her mother is overbearing and pushy, that is part of Mei’s culture. I found the character development in American Panda to be incredibly moving and I think it really made the book.
The supporting characters in the book were interesting – for example, I went from not liking Mei’s roommate Nicolette very much, to absolutely adoring her. What unfolded when we finally learned about her brother was also interesting and vital to the story.
If you are looking for a great read that you won’t be able to put down, American Panda is perfect for you.
Gloria Chao is an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer. AMERICAN PANDA is her debut novel, coming out February 6, 2018 from Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.
Gloria currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband, for whom she be-came a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for cooperative board games, Dance Dance Revolution, or soup dumplings. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suc-tioned out.
Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at gloriachao.wordpress.com and find her on Twit-ter @gloriacchao.
1 finished copy of AMERICAN PANDA by Gloria Chao
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