Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: February 6, 2018
Received From: NetGalley
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?
SEXUALITY: presumed heterosexual
TROPES: forbidden romance
TAGS: young adult, contemporary, coming of age, Taiwanese character, Japanese character, Asian character, POC character, Taiwanese author, Asian author, POC author, fat character, germophobic character, Buddhist character, interracial romance, diaspora, ownvoices
WARNINGS: fatmisia, mental illness (germophobia), slutshaming, ableism, racism, gaslighting, cheating mention, disownment, slurs, gendered slurs, cissexism / transmisia, suicide mention
While the “laugh out loud” description is a bit misleading, this is a wonderful story about a young girl trying to find herself and achieve some kind of balance between her life as an American teenager and the traditional customs of her family and Taiwanese culture.
As I’m not Taiwanese, Chinese, or Japanese, I can’t speak on the representation there, but I do want to say that I very much enjoyed reading a book with an almost entirely Asian cast, and getting to see more accurate depictions of the varied cultures than one would find in a book not written by an Asian author. It was so interesting, and at times heartbreaking, to watch Mei and her family circle each other–them trying to hold her within the traditions they’ve followed their whole lives, while she tries to make room for things she loves (dancing) and ejecting things she hates (germs, becoming a doctor). In certain moments, I wanted to hold her close and help her, but watching Mei wade her way through to finding compromises was so lovely.
Also, I enjoyed the friendship that blossomed between Mei and her roommate, Nic. At first, they dislike each other and avoid the other at all costs, but over time throughout the semester, we get to see them move past their initial assumptions and get to know each other. They’ve vital parts of helping each other find the right place for themselves, and I loved seeing the girls become good friends.
The fat rep within the novel was good, as well, but it was difficult for me to read at times. Mei is fat and likes food. Her family frequently comments on her weight to tell her she needs to lose some (especially if she wants to get a husband), which in turn makes her very self-conscious about it. It was something I could really relate to and those were some of the instances in which I wanted to take Mei away and protect her from the hurtful words. I did enjoy the fact that, by the end of the novel, Mei’s mother has made a strong effort to stop commenting on Mei’s eating habits and weight. Also, I liked that Mei was described to be a wonderful dancer, which shows that it’s not only thin people who can dance and dance well, and that the fat girl got the boy because she’s just as deserving of love as everyone else.
For an ownvoices review, take a look at Shenwei’s short review on GoodReads.
For more information on the book, check out this interview on Shenwei’s blog between them and Gloria Chao.
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 became 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 suctioned out.
Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at gloriachao.wordpress.com and find her on Twitter @gloriacchao.