Book review · novel

Book review: American Panda

American Panda, by Gloria Chao

american panda coverDescription: (from Simon and Schuster)

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 was first interested in reading American Panda because I saw it was set in college (MIT to be more precice) and I’m kinda starved for books set there.

Mei is a dancer, has germopobia, is comfortable in her size-eight body and I enjoyed a lot reading about her self-discovery, her struggles and awkardness, her sense of humor, passion and discoveries.

I loved reading about her college experience and how it made her reconsider the way her family behaves and who she is, coming to term with traditions, with her heritage and where to draw the line.

The core of the book is about her battling guilt and parental expecations. I felt for Mei, but I also felt so much for her mother and her brother, for her whole family. Mei’s journey in understanding her mother and the empathy she shows to her was really one of the highlights of the novel for me. The way Mei reconnected with her brother and came to understand how their upbringing, gender and order of birth influenced their experience was also really enlightening.

Since this is a romance book, of course there was a love interest. Darren is a third generation Japenese-American and while Mei and him didn’t have the same experience, they managed to understand each other and I loved the way he gave her room to think and how he accepted her the way she was, in all her complexity and growing phase.
I loved how friendship was important here too, both new ones that grows from Mei taking a step back from her first impressions and also older friendship.

American Panda was a reading experience filled with second-hand embarassement for me, but also so much tears and smiles, a very emotional ride.

Not knowing Taiwanese culture so well, it was difficult at first to not judge and feel surprised by everything Mei had to deal with. Knowing this is an ownvoices novel and that so many people felt seen and understood when reading this also prompted me (someone not from this background) to read this and take a step back and look at it with a different lense, understanding that this is not for me to judge and just accompany the character in her journey both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
I only googled things here and there, but most of the time Mei/the author explained and translated everything she knew some readers wouldn’t be familiar with.

I read this in almost one setting and would really recommend it for one chilly afternoon!

Content warning: body shaming, racism, mention of suicide

Those posts are the one that made me really excited to read this book!

8 thoughts on “Book review: American Panda

    1. Oh yeah I’ve seen many people opening up about this on twitter after they learned about this book!
      I feel like there’s the “same” kind of discussion in “Let’s talk about love” regarding law degrees!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s