October 1, 2018

American Panda by Gloria Chao [book]


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?

Riding high on the Asian wave, I've extended my search for representation to books. I've read everything I could get my hands on across the Asian spectrum, from contemporary stories like Emergency Contact and It's Not Like It's a Secret to more fantasy-inspired stories like The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. But one story, above all, prompted me to write a review of it.

American Panda starts off funny: jokes about stinky tofu, disapproving mothers, and of course, starting college at MIT--pre-med. It warms you with the familiars Tiger parent narrative and sprinkles of Mandarin before launching into wonderful awkward hints of romance. I thought I would know where the book would lead. I was wrong.

What's so lovely about this book is that it isn't at all what the fluffy cover and loopy font leads you to believe it is. The jokes and awkwardness are cute, but this isn't a To All the Boys-style rom-com. It's barely even a romance. Or a comedy.

This book is a wonderful examination of what it means to be Chinese-American; to be stuck between traditional parents and a progressive world. This book explores the familial relationship in a way Chinese-American kids haven't seen reflected back at them in the media they consume. This book is secretly a deep, poignant drama, wrapped in the cloak of teenage romance.

This is not to say that the romance angle is irrelevant or unnecessary--it's not. Only that it's not the main focus, and I actually love the book more for it. I cried reading it. A lot. All the feelings I had watching The Joy Luck Club for the first time rushed back when reading this. It's a hell of a thing--representation. And even though my life experience does not match that of the main character in this story, the small overlaps feel like a victory. Oh, she only refers to her butt in Chinese? Me too!!

Of course, it's impossible to live in America and read something like this and not wonder how it fits into the larger landscape of accessibility: i.e. how would white readers react to this? What experience would they have reading it? Would it all seem foreign to them? Would they assume this is how it is in every Chinese family? I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but honestly, I don't really care. I read a book that felt like it was written for people like me and you know what? Fuck anyone who doesn't understand it. I don't care. (I'm sure the author cares, but that's not currently my problem.) I want a movie made of this. I want this story out there, like The Joy Luck Club, for new generations of Chinese-American kids to relate to.

Final word: Where's my movie, Netflix?!?

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