Goodreads: American Panda
At seventeen, Mei is already a freshman at MIT and planning to study pre-med. At least, that’s what her parents want. They have her life all planned out, down to her career and whom she will marry. But, as Mei struggles with her fear of germs and begins to fall in love with an off-limits guy, she starts to wonder if she could have a different life. If she has the courage to rebel, like the son her parents disowned.
American Panda tells the story of Tawainese-American teenager Mei as she struggles to follow her own path in the face of her family’s disapproval. Raised from birth to be docile and obedient, Mei understands that her parents expect her to become a doctor and to marry another Tawainese-American doctor. Her deep-seated fear of germs (which appears to be an unacknowledged mental illness) is no excuse not to be pre-med. And her love for a young Japanese-American? Well, her mother has plenty to say about the Japanese. But Mei fears to reveal her passion for dance or her newfound crush because she knows what will happen; she will be disowned like her brother Xing, who had to nerve to fall in love with a girl who might have trouble conceiving. All this gives the readers plenty to think about as Mei navigates young adulthood with her own unique set of difficulties. And yet, American Panda never really lives up to its promise, due to its uneven pacing and awkwardly inserted characters–characters who appear only to Teach a Lesson or somehow reveal something to or about Mei.
The first half of American Panda is much weaker than the second half, thanks to the presence of characters who do not fit naturally into the story. There is the roommate who appears solely so she can explain to Mei why, as a result of various historical events, Mei’s family is neither Chinese nor Tawainese. There is the doctor who just happens to be present at MIT’s health clinic, so Mei can catch a glimpse of her future self: cowed, unhappy, afraid of the patients, and not that great at her job. There is the girl on the bus who is present so readers can be reassured that Mei, even though raised in a very conservative household, still holds the appropriate progressive political views. And there is Darren Takahashi, Mei’s instalove hero, present partially so Mei’s mother can explain the historic relationship between the Tawainese and Japanese, and partially to be a supporting presence in Mei’s life; he doesn’t really have a personality and his love for Mei seems unwarranted, but, hey, at least he’s a catalyst for Mei’s future rebellion, right? None of this storytelling seems natural. Rather, the characters are shoehorned in to make a point.
The second half of the book is far superior to the first half. This is the part where Mei finally takes action, experiences the consequences, and has to figure out what she is more willing to sacrifice: her happiness or her relationship with her parents. There’s plenty of drama and many heartfelt scenes with Mei trying to reconnect with her family and make things right. She even dares to dream that she could change things for more people than herself. If the whole book had felt as real and raw, American Panda would be a far more impressive read.
American Panda is notable on the YA market for featuring a Tawainese-American protagonist, and many readers are certainly grateful for its representation. The construction of the novel is, however, somewhat lacking, with the first half being slower paced with characters inserted, not because they feel like a natural part of the story, but because they help start conversations about history or politics that the author feels are relevant to Mei’s familial background. The second half of the book does pick up, however, so readers interested in reading American Panda can have some hope that the story will improve if they persevere.