American Panda by Gloria Chao

“Honesty is sometimes misconstrued as rudeness, which is probably why it’s so rare.”

If you’ve ever struggled to live up to the expectations of others, while still being true to who you are, American Panda is the perfect book for you. And honestly, who couldn’t relate to that? It’s hard to be honest in the best of times, especially when it’s personal; and being honest about who we are is probably one of the biggest trials we each face as we grow up.

american panda17-year-old Mei is a young college freshman at MIT struggling with the weight of her parents’ plans for her life. Because, yes, they’ve already mapped it all out for her (it’s been set in stone since the day she was born) – there’s MIT and then Medical School and then life as a doctor/housewife married to a “good” Chinese boy who is probably also a doctor.

The problem is, Mei is a total germaphobe who is in no way cut out for the medical profession. What she really loves is numbers and dance, but neither of those things is as secure as being a doctor, so her parents won’t even consider them as possible majors for her.

I love Mei’s voice. It’s so authentic and awkward – she’s is absolutely a mess, which I feel anyone would be if placed in her situation. She’s clearly been sheltered her entire life, and now that she’s got a taste of freedom at MIT things are starting to change so quickly that she practically doesn’t have time to catch up to the spinning gears in her head telling her that maybe traditions aren’t all meant to be followed.

This book has some very painful moments. It was heartbreaking to watch Mei’s family act like total jerks to Mei’s brother Xing, all because he dated a woman that “wasn’t good enough” for their tastes, and some of the traditions they try to foster on their children seem utterly barbaric by today’s standards.

One thing I really appreciated though is that Mei does a great job of introducing us to Taiwanese culture, superstitions and traditions with a gentle hand. Yes, some of those cultural elements seem strange or even barbaric to us in modern day America, but she never trashes the culture for it. Instead, it’s with an inside look that we come to understand why her family acts they way they do (even when it’s utterly devestating to witness) and while we may not agree with it or even like it, it’s something we can at least understand and maybe even empathize with it. Traditions can be very weighty, after all.

“I don’t know why he can’t just give a little.”

“Cognitive dissonance perhaps?” I suggested.

My mom raised an eyebrow in question.

“B ba sacrificed so much beceause of these traditions, and if he gives a little, it would mean his hardships were unnecessary,” I explained. “So in a way, he can’t give in because he can’t accept that he suffered for no reason.”

Mei’s journey to discover herself admist those traditions is delicate and fragile anf frought with hardships, but it’s also full of humor. I learned so much about Taiwanese culture, which was awesome, and now I want to go out and try pork rice and oyster cakes and especially Taiwanese Shaved Ice. So I need to find a place in my area that sells those things ASAP.

American Panda cuts straight to the heart of what it means to balance tradition, culture, family and love. It’s a poignant story of forging your own path through the ties that bind us to those we love most, and it will inspire you to hold your head high and have the courage to be unabashadedly who you are.

Review: 4/5 stars

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