Gloria C. Chao
February 6, 2018
When I was ten, I came up with a ten-year-plan. I was that kid, the one who was sure I knew what I wanted and where I needed to go to achieve it. Fast-forward ten years and almost nothing I had planned had come to fruition, for various reasons. By 18, I was going to be in university, I’d told myself. That ended up being the only thing to come true, but again, not exactly the way I’d envisioned it. Everything was a little bit off, a little bit weird, and very unpredictable.
Mei Lu, the protagonist of Gloria Chao’s debut novel American Panda, had a plan too. It wasn’t a plan she’d created by herself, but it was a plan nonetheless. But what happens when you know, in your heart, that nothing is going to turn out the way it’s been planned and that you might be someone very different from who your parents expect? It’s a singular anguish, certainly not unique to the Asian-American experience, but in American Panda, Chao explores how one girl and her family muddle their way through it, with the influence and expectations of Taiwanese culture layered throughout. There might be familiar beats, but the song is new and it compels the reader to soar as well.
I loved Mei from the start, I must admit. She is incredibly charming, even when she’s stressed out, and honestly, who could blame her for feeling overwhelmed when she’s barely 17 and already attending her first college class? As someone who went to college at 16, Mei’s experience was not just relatable, but comforting. Mei’s just trying to figure out who she is, and who she wants to be, but the stage where she’s asking those questions is not the same stage her peers are standing on. I related so much to Mei’s distress, even though our circumstances weren’t exactly the same. Chao clearly feels empathy for Mei as she writes Mei’s story, and it shows on every page.
But while the questions are hard, Chao doesn’t let the story sink too far into angst. Her writing style is bouncy and charming, and it highlights Mei’s own indomitable spirit on every page. There are glimmers of hope all around that Chao brings forward for Mei–new friends, shared interests, and a boy who sees Mei as she is. Chao’s insistent push-back against the fatphobia that’s so rampant in Asian cultures is another highlight, especially in a genre that has yet to really explore what it means to be an Asian girl who isn’t stick-thin.
Mei’s interactions with her family range from stressful to hopeful, and every scene is written in a way where you can tell Chao understands how it feels to be in this strange in-between. Mei’s parents aren’t just a trope of strict Asian parents–they’re people. They have expectations, yes, but they also have fears, they make choices that don’t always make sense, and they’re flawed. They might never be the parents Mei wants exactly, and the hard conversations might always be hard. Chao doesn’t shy away from that truth that lives in a lot of Asian/Asian-American kids’ reality, but she offers a possibility of more, a path that exists and that sometimes we can choose to take for ourselves. Mei’s choices are not mine, and her parents’ choices aren’t reflective of what my own parents chose, and there are many of us who likely exist in the middle of extremes. But at the heart of American Panda is a realization that can power us through the challenges of it all: we can only be ourselves, in the fullest and deepest ways we can find, and that is always going to be enough.