American Panda by Gloria Chao

I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

American Panda by Gloria ChaoAmerican Panda by Gloria Chao
Published by Simon Pulse on February 6, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 311
Format: eARC
Source: Edelweiss
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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?

Fluffy contemporaries are my favorite, and this cover had my hopes up high, between the cutesy fonts and drawings, that glowing smile, and the warm beverage, it promises the fluffiest. There are a few darker aspects to American Panda, but on the whole I got just what I wanted. Actually, some of the things I didn’t want ended up being just right. I love when contemporaries strike that balance between cuteness and real life problems. I loved American Panda from the first page to the last.

The story in American Panda is very much a Taiwanese-American story, one of many, as Chao delineates quite clearly in her Author’s Note. There’s a lot that teens of other backgrounds will be able to relate to: controlling parents, struggling to find your voice and choose a future, and trying to find balance in college between work and fun. However, their are cultural aspects that make some of this very different for Mei than it would have been for me, even if I had parents who were trying to push me into a future for which I was not suited.

What, for me, would have been a relatively easy decision, though fraught, is for Mei a punishing, nigh impossible decision: does she follow her heart and her dreams or her parents? That may sound easy from a western point of view, but Mei has been brought up to believe that her parents’ needs should always come before her own, precisely the opposite of a number of American experiences. American Panda does center on a more stereotypical sort of Asian upbringing, but there’s so much representation here that it’s clear that there are more experiences than just Mei’s.

Making the decision more difficult for Mei is that she has seen clearly that her parents truly mean their warnings of disownment should she step from the path they have planned. Her older brother, Xing, was kicked out of the family, despite the fact that he is a doctor in love with a Taiwanese-American woman, all because the woman he loves had endometriosis and may be unable to bear children. Since he refused to dump her, they cut him off entirely. Mei hasn’t seen her brother in four years.

Mei got into MIT at 17, and her parents are thrilled to send her off to college for pre-med, on the way to being a doctor. Problem is, Mei’s a germophobe, and she really fears she cannot be a doctor. Also, she finds biology boring (girl, I am SO with you). She wants to be a dance instructor. (Sidebar: I love that her dream is to a own a dance studio, rather than a professional dancer, because I feel like that’s so much less common.) And she also wants to date the super nerd hot Darren Takahashi, who is a super no from mom and dad because he’s Japanese. Mei immediately felt like a kindred spirit with her social awkwardness and anxiety.

The story of American Panda fits the classic coming of age mold, hitting all the right notes. From the very first, I loved Mei’s voice. Though she does act like a pushover at the beginning, her voice is snarky, and I bonded instantly with her anxiousness and weirdness. Her journey from perfect Taiwanese daughter to embracing herself and choosing what she wants from both cultures made me laugh and brought me close to tears.

Of course, I also love the romance, though it’s not really center stage in the plot. Darren’s super precious, and I absolutely love the way these two banter and pun and embrace the weird together. It’s thoroughly charming. Admittedly, the reader doesn’t get to know Darren well enough to see any flaws, so he could skew a bit to the perfect, at least if you love punning nerd boys, which I’m dating one sooooo.

The relationship between Mei and her roommate Nicolette could have used a bit more development, but works for the most part. Mei’s judginess of Nicolette’s sexual activity, largely due to Nic’s chlamydia could be triggering for some readers; I was able to accept it because it did seem like Mei knew it was wrong, but her germaphobic-ness made her unable to deal. The characters of Ying-Na and Dr. Chang, meanwhile, both work very well, filling out similar character arcs to Mei but in their own unique ways.

American Panda is one of those books that I finished with a big smile on my fave. I have no higher recommendation than that.

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