AMERICAN PANDA BY GLORIA CHAO – REVIEW BY KRIS BARR PAQUETTE
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?
From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.
Gloria Chao’s debut YA novel, American Panda, features loveable, comical Mei who struggles to please her very opinionated parents. Sounds like a novel all teens can relate to, doesn’t it? I remember wanting to crawl under the table every time my mother pointed out my zits. Likewise, I connected to Mei; I felt for her and at times and even rolled my eyes for her, too.
From it’s eye-catching cover, and fun title font and and clipart, I grabbed this book off the book store shelf fully expecting a light hearted, fun read that I could fly through. Therefore, I was not expecting to grapple with the range of emotions that Mei’s story evoked from me. Mei’s parents have her life entirely planned out for her. What school she should go to. What field she should study. Who she should marry. Domineeringly, they never seek her opinion, which Mei has come to expect. They have thoughts on everything from the size of her nose, her chest, her beauty, her love life, the best schools, the paths to success….and that’s just to name a few. They have even disowned her brother for his choices. Throughout the book, my heart whimpered for Mei. How would she find her way to happiness when her interests don’t align with her parents? They have big plans for her. “I’m so glad you will be a doc-tor,” my mother continued, her pride overemphasizing each syllable. “Doctors always have a job. Never have to worry. So stable, so secure. And so respectable. That’s why we are so happy to pay for your tuition.” (American Panda, page 5)
Throughout reading this book, I found myself comparing my journey to adulthood to young Mei’s. My father working all his life in a factory, did expect me to attend college and find myself in a better set of circumstances. However, I did not find these expectations suffocating. Unlike her parents, mine left my decisions up to me. I chose to apply and attend Central Michigan University. Although my mother was already an elementary teacher, she did not pressure me in the slightest to enter teaching. Teaching was my passion. My choice. I cannot imagine entering a field of study, where I was truly fearful of a component. Making life choices can be a struggle for many teens. Similarly to Mei, I did have other adults that I looked toward for mentoring and advice: high school teachers, college professors, and neighbors. Hopefully, Mei’s journey and seeking guidance from others will resonate with readers who also need guidance outside of their homelife as many teens do.
Gloria Chao created a very likeable, dynamic character in Mei while showing the reader the struggles of this American Taiwanese college student trying to please her parents. Mei respects her parents greatly, values holding onto her Taiwanese culture, yet yearns to embrace her American self, too. Mei’s journey certainly is not easy, but told through her charming, witty point of view made her story a page turner for me. There are many moments when the reader will relate to the main character and chuckle right out loud at her muqin’s comments or frequent over-the-top voicemails. I know I did! Grab yourself a copy of American Panda and enjoy this contemporary, culturally eye-opening, entertaining read.
Kris Barr Paquette has been a reading teacher for 18 years at Marshall Greene Middle School in Birch Run, Michigan. She currently is the Title I Reading Specialist servicing fifth through eighth grades. She’s a Harry Potter fan, a true Gryffindor- if you must know, and an avid reader. When you don’t find her at school, she’ll most likely be reading on her front porch.