With Lunar New Year coming up (this weekend!!) I thought this is a great time to share my thoughts about American Panda, a book that I related to so much as an Asian-Canadian. You’ll find that I’ve interspersed this (spoiler-free) book review with some of my own thoughts and reflections as an Asian-Canadian as well.
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 really loved the characters who were believable and relatable:
Mei was a Taiwanese-American girl whose family had strict standards for her career and her life. She was instructed to pursue a career in medicine and she was to marry a Taiwanese-American man who fulfilled her family’s requirements. However, this wasn’t the life that Mei wanted for herself. She enjoyed dance. She also couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
Mei’s family wanted to hang on to their Asian roots and traditions rather than embrace the “American way.” Although they were harsh on Mei, this was also because they wanted the best for her; however they believed that the only way to succeed was for her daughter to be a doctor and marry a man who fulfilled their criteria. I loved that Mei’s family wasn’t presented as “antagonists” but rather in shades of grey. They were strict but they also loved their daughter.
I liked the relationship between Mei and her love interest, which was full of chemistry and addictive to read about.
Plot & Pacing
When I picked up the book, I thought that it would be a light and fluffy read… and it was, but also wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the book was funny. It got me laughing at just the right moments. The prose flowed well and it was a fast-paced book.
However, this novel also explored some deeper topics. One of the themes that I felt was central to this novel was the idea that culture was expressed differently in different families. Not all Taiwanese-Americans follow the same traditions. While Mei’s family was strict in following their roots, other families were able to leave their traditions behind. Mei also discovered that there were traditions practiced by other families that she did not know about. I loved this reminder that the Asian culture isn’t homogenous. It is complex and diverse and it looks different depending on the country, the family and the individual.
This novel (and I’m sure any novels that have minority representation) walked a fine line between presenting Asian stereotypes (e.g. strict parents, being good at math) and shattering them. I thought it did this well.
Although I was able to relate to this novel for the most part, I was slightly stunned by the plot events that took place towards the end. In my own experience as an Asian-Canadian, I haven’t encountered circumstances as extreme as what Mei faced in this novel, and I didn’t think that this is the norm. However……. I really can’t speak for the many other Chinese or Taiwanese kids who came to North America haha.
Writing & Worldbuilding
It took me a small while to get used to the simple language used in this book, but I ended up loving it. I was able to get into the head of the main character easily.
I loved the Mandarin words and sayings that are embedded in the dialogues and Mei’s narration. They were nostalgic and reminded me of my own Chinese upbringing and brought pleasant memories of my Chinese-Canadian family.
One quirk in the prose was that it was very introspection-heavy. Sometimes I found myself having to read back to figure out where the character was physically. It wasn’t always clear when transitions took place.
The Bottom Line
Loved this YA contemporary which was so relatable and nostalgic for me and gave me all the feels. Definitely recommended if you are looking for a story with amazing Asian rep!