2:15 pm EST, February 9, 2018

‘American Panda’ by Gloria Chao book review: An honest and evocative coming-of-age story

By Lelanie Seyffer | Edited by Donya Abramo

Gloria Chao’s American Panda is a story of self-discovery that is often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking and, above all, gives us an honest look at what it’s like to grow up straddling two different cultures.

About ‘American Panda’ by Gloria Chao

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?

American Panda book cover

‘American Panda’ by Gloria Chao Book Review

I started reading this book a few hours before I went to bed one night, thinking that I’d put it down in a few hours once I got sleepy and pick it back up the next day.

Cut to me, many hours later, finishing the book at two in the morning and trying to swallow back ugly sobs so I didn’t wake up my husband and my dog, who were slumbering peacefully next to me.

Now, the book’s ending itself isn’t particularly sad. In fact, I might say that it was pretty damn uplifting, all things considered. But what got me was the fact that I had just read a book in which I could so clearly see myself and my complicated relationships with my family and my cultural identity.

So these tears weren’t out of sadness, but tears of happiness and empathy and relief. Happiness that a book like this exists, empathy for the hardships and the journey that Mei took in American Panda, relief that other young Asian-Americans out there would have a book like this as they go on their own journeys.

Also, it was two in the morning, and I’d just spent the last few hours reading, so I might classify them as tears of delirium as well.

American Panda is a story that is satisfying on a lot of different levels, both emotionally and narratively. There is a romance to it that often made me grin so hard that my cheeks hurt, female friendships that made my heart sing, and a focus on the importance of the arts — especially the fine arts! — which is so important to highlight, especially within Asian-American communities.

I do have to say that the most deeply affecting storyline for me was the relationship that Mei had with her mother. First off, I loved the realism of it, which made it hilarious, frustrating and sympathetic all at once. The chapters are interspersed with voicemails that her mother (and sometimes aunt and grandmother) leave, and there were times where it felt like Gloria Chao had hacked into my phone and transcribed my Nanay’s voicemails into her novel (I kid you not, right now there is a voicemail that is just, “Anak, it’s your Nanay. Why haven’t you called me back? Do you still remember who I am, or have you forgotten your Nanay already?”)

Secondly, I loved how dynamic it was. Mei herself takes a journey of self-discovery, but so does her mother. And in doing so, these two characters take a journey together that changes the way they see one another and relate to each other. Both Mei and her mother begin this book by seeing one another only as daughter and as mother, but by the end are able to look at one another as individuals, as human beings with their own stories and struggles, and I just found that to be such a beautiful and uplifting storyline.

Finally, I just loved Mei so much. There were times where I wish I could walk into the pages of the book and give her a hug and tell her that it was going to be ok (luckily, older brother Xing is a fantastic older brother and did this for me).

Mei is a character that I deeply empathize with, even if our experiences with our parents and our cultural identity weren’t exactly the same in scale. That experience of wanting so desperately to be who you know your parents want you to be, while also struggling to figure out and come to terms with the fact that what you want for yourself won’t ever align with that, is something that I deeply identified with.

I’m so grateful that this book exists, and that I was able to take this journey with Mei. It’s a fantastic story of identity and self-discovery that is beautifully told, and I can’t wait to see what Gloria Chao gives us next!

American Panda by Gloria Chao is available now! Order your copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. And don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads!

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