|Before we jump into this post, I wanted to explain my hiatus. I know I’ve been an utterly terrible blogger, and I wanted to explain why. I actually explained on Twitter why (check out my Twitter, which I try to keep active on but end up retweeting important things but promise to be more active here. Ok, sorry for the self-promo. So what happened was that I got a case of newbie blogger burnout and slumping. There’s so much happening, and I’ve been really stressed, especially since March was such a hectic month for me that blogging got pushed to the backburner, since I was committed to so many extra-curriculars and had to hand in assignment after assignment. I’m trying to redecorate and make my blog bigger and better, but it’s been terrible. Even though I had spring break, which I had hoped to work on my blog, I went back to my hometown, Kuala Lumpur, and was busy going training, visiting and spending time with friends and family as well as having very limited access to wifi that again, blogging is something that was too hard to do in that moment. I promise to do my best to post at least once a week, and here’s to better and more consistent content.
First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way – I adored American Panda, since it strongly resonated with me in so many ways. Also, I have a soft spot for books with Asian protagonists/characters, especially if they are Chinese and/or Southeast Asian. I implore every single teen, especially Asian-Americans, Asian-Australians or any Asian teen brought up in a highly Westernized environment.
But since I want to end this review on a positive note, I want to bring up the things I didn’t really like about this book, especially since it paled so strongly in comparison to the rest of the book – the writing. In all honesty, I found the writing jarring and confusing. It often took me out of the story to process the events, and I would need 10 pages to get back into the story. This book, IMO, only really hits its stride 60% into the book. Hopefully, this will be improved in Chao’s future works. I foresee this being a key source of critique amongst other readers.
American Panda is marketed as a funny, laugh-out-loud Taiwanese-American rom-com, which what drew me to it. It is cute, swoon-worthy and I was hardcore rooting for the ship to sail. But it is so much more than that – it explores the complexity of the relationship of Asian parents and their children without slapping labels and allowing the characters to be fully fleshed out. Each character was written so well, with Chao obviously giving so much thought to each character, major or minor. Each character had distinct human flaws and motivations, and not only are their motivations are not only completely fleshed out, they’re understandable. Also, I’ve got to comment on the culture – it was spot-on. So many of the traditional Chinese superstitions are there, with the traditions and honestly, just the essence of Chinese culture itself … Often I found myself nodding along because it was just so true and something I saw often. I know this book will not reflect everyone’s experience, so take it as one authentic Taiwanese-American experience.
“The pagoda-shaped entrance was from one of my worlds, the one in which I didn’t belong. I look at the buildings across the street, outside Chinatown. Tufts Medical Center, The W Hotel, McDonald’s. I didn’t belong in that world either.”
Miss Chao just described so much of my life in one small passage. It is, personally, the most powerful passage in the whole novel. Even though there are so many powerful, important passages that I urge you to read and that are all powerful in their own ways, this hit me the hardest.
Let me explain why, by telling you about my life. Here’s the thing – I’m Malaysian Chinese. However, I was (and still am) educated in international schools my whole life. I was simultaneously exposed to Chinese culture and the language as well as Western culture. I never truly, fully fit in either world. Being Asian, I never fit in the Western world, not being white and therefore being different. However, in the Chinese world, I never really fit in either – I sounded white, was often the brunt of “too-white” jokes amongst my cousins who are far more Chinese than I am, and I cannot (but am trying) fluently speak Chinese. This story, Mei’s life, and the culture are therefore so so powerful to me and I cannot be happier. Over at least 400 books that I’ve read in my entire life, this is the only book that I’ve ever read that has truly described this part of me with such a painfully accurate manner that I nearly burst into tears whenever I think of it.
And the characters? Oh, the characters … our protagonist, Mei, is a precious cinnamon roll. She’s a (pretty sure) plus-sized Taiwanese-American 17 year old. She gets a lot of comments from other characters in the book, as they are often surprised she is ‘Chinese’ as she is ‘big/chubby/plus-sized’. (This is mentioned multiple times in the book itself). Here’s the thing – and none of you should really be surprised – there are still many, many Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kongnese/Chinese in any form plus-sized girls. Heck, I myself are friends and am acquaintances with many of them. I’m so grateful that Mei and the author called this out. (I’m not a plus-sized girl by any means, but just a Malaysian Chinese teen). Mei is so painfully realistic, hilariously awkward and just so … wonderful. I’m beyond grateful to have her in YA literature, and so happy to have this as a Malaysian-Chinese teen reader.
To wrap up this long, full-of-feels, rambly review – I’m going to make it a mission of my own to put this in the hands of as many Taiwanese-American, Chinese girls or just girls like me in the hopes that they will find meaning in this too. I’ve already pressed the ‘Want to Read’ button for her future works.
I truly mean it when I say I have no words for Gloria Chao for giving me a novel I so strongly resonated with and a novel so wonderfully authentic. Thank you, its synonyms or anything related to it in any language can fully begin to articulate my eternal gratitude to Miss Chao – to Miss Chao, if you ever read this review, consider this my letter of thanks beyond comprehension. I read this in February and I’m still thinking about it in April, and I’m expecting it to stay this way for the rest of my life.