Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pub. Date: 2018
Genres: Contemporary Realistic Fiction, YA
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Through a combination of reading the synopsis and several reviews, I decided that I wanted to borrow American Panda, by Gloria Chao, from the library and read it. Having graduated high school a year early, Mei is starting her first semester at MIT on the pre-med path her Taiwanese parents chose for her. She struggles with this path as she gains a modicum of independence, hangs out with a not-Taiwanese boy, and finds she cannot compromise on germs. American Panda is a sweet, contemporary novel about one teen’s family expectations, culture, and career choices clashing.
Mei is an interesting, awkward teenager. When she was little, she had started school without knowing English, and she dealt with some major culture clashes over it. She started college a year early, mostly at her parents’ encouragement, and now she has to study pre-med even though she has a strong aversion to germs. (Hence her big supply of pomegranate-scented hand sanitizer.) She secretly keeps dancing to slightly fulfill her dreams of owning a studio one day. She deals pretty well with her parents’ overbearing presence in her college life. They’re obsessed with her becoming a doctor, a good wife, and her being a good girl. They show that in their daily voicemails, their weekly visits where they harass her about her grades, and their reminders about what they expect of her.
One of the greater conflicts of this story is deciding what to do when the career you want isn’t one that is traditionally practical. Mei knows what is expected of her, but she would rather open her own dance studio. I like the tidbits of her pursuing her dream, and I like that she shadows doctors and tries to see if she can do it. I feel like I have seen or read this story many times. Even though this conflict is blamed on cultural expectations, I think it’s a pretty common experience (with or without cultural influence) to struggle with the career path your parents want for you and the path you want. It bothers me even more that the outcome of this is predictable.
Since a lot of her career upset has to do with her parents, I like that Gloria Chao carried the family issues to being more than her career choices. Mei has had more stress put on her since her parents disowned her older brother. He accidentally comes back into her life, and she doesn’t want him absent from it any longer. Unfortunately, her family would be very displeased to learn that she has officially jumped off the hate-the-disowned-son train. This was an interesting conflict in the story, but it didn’t feel like a big conflict on Mei’s end. Considering this is an estrangement, it was perfectly relevant to the issues Mei is dealing with from her parents and their culture.
I liked the presence of a romantic interest for her. Darren is part of the conflict with her family in that he isn’t Taiwanese, and he demonstrates that not every Asian American has the same experience. He is nice and supportive, but I wish there was a real character flaw to him. He feels flat.
Two of the characters, who should be influential on Mei, exist only for convenient career-issue plot points for her. Nicolette is Mei’s roommate who exists to confirm that Mei doesn’t want to be a doctor and to give two wild experiences at MIT. Ying-Na for most of the novel serves as the prime example of what happens to girls who don’t follow the path their parents set out for them, and then she suddenly appears as another confirmation for Mei about her dream career path. While I feel that I can excuse Ying-Na for being more an abstract idea than a person in the book, Mei’s roommate would have been more interesting to me if she had a larger role or was just a minor nuisance in the protagonist’s daily college life.
A side note on the Kindle version of this book: While the ebook retains the beautiful design details at the start of each chapter, it does not show page numbers at all.
This is a sweet #OwnVoices novel about the clash of culture and family on career choices in the life of one Taiwanese-American girl. If you want to read more YA books set in college or see a character struggle with her career choices, this is an okay book for you. If you want a book that deals with culture clashes, you might like American Panda.