I’ve started writing this review numerous times and just can’t figure out how to do so. If you’ve been following along with my blog, you know that I’ve been anticipating American Panda for a little while now and I think I let my expectations get the better of me. It also could have just been that I wasn’t in the right head space to enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. That could be true of many books I’ve read or tried to read in February, honestly. In this space, I’m going to endeavor to explain to you why I think American Panda is a well-written book that has great representation for some people, but missed the mark for me.
If you haven’t seen Gloria Chao’s Twitter recently, you may have missed that there have been many glowing messages about how important this book is to some people. This is the second YA novel about a Taiwanese American main character perhaps ever so it’s clearly important. And I’m beyond excited for people to get to see themselves in this novel. But if you’re not Taiwanese American or Asian American in general, you can still enjoy and appreciate this book!
This book follows Mei, a 17 year old who is starting college at MIT because she graduated from high school early and is pre-med because her parents think that being a doctor is pretty much the only respectable career one can have. Her mom keeps trying to play matchmaker now that Mei is in college with a neighbor’s son, who I think was in med school. Mei is resistant to both of these ideas because she hates germs and biology and she’s 17.
I felt like Mei was a very relatable character and her voice is one that I mostly enjoyed reading. I thought it was fascinating to watch her struggle with the guilt she felt about continuing to dance, but being unwilling to give up that piece of herself. I liked seeing her realize that there was no way that she could be a doctor. I really liked her romance with her Japanese American classmate, Darren. I absolutely adored Mei’s trip to this comedy show; it’s probably my favorite scene in the entire book.
I was less fond of the storyline with Xing, Mei’s disowned brother, who was disowned for extremely ridiculous reasons. And I’m not saying that’s unrealistic, but it made me dislike Xing because he never should have shared the information he did share at that stage. And it was just extremely odd to have that included in this novel and to be glossed over a bit. Basically, Xing’s storyline (which really belongs to his girlfriend) should have been a book to itself, if that was to be the reason. Or the actual reason needed more examination.
That would lead to my next point better if I could tell you why Xing was disowned without spoiling something, but since I can’t, sorry for this abrupt transition: Mei’s mom’s slut shaming is heavily internalized by Mei and it’s not dealt with in a healthy manner. Obviously, we get that Mei’s mom is over-bearing and judgmental of everything that doesn’t fit with her ideas of what is right and good. And it’s fine to show that Mei has internalized these messages and is working through them because that’s kind of the point of this entire book. What isn’t okay is that Mei decides her roommate isn’t a bad person because she isn’t sleeping around as much as Mei thought. That’s very different from realizing that people are allowed to make their own decisions without your judgment. Of course you can and should encourage people to have safe sex if they are going to engage in promiscuous behaviors, but that’s pretty separate from judging someone as a person.
In the end, the slut shaming bothered me quite a bit in this book, as did the part about Mei’s mom just being so overwhelmingly overbearing. There are other plot points that bugged me quite a bit, but I can’t say much more without spoiling things. So I will just say that I think this book is important and I’m glad it’s helped many people see themselves, but please send me book recs featuring Asian American parents who don’t disown their children for doing what they love. Thanks, bye.