Arts book review

Novel set at MIT is more than black and white

American Panda explores cultural stereotypes ... and our school

8447 american panda cover hi res
'American Panda' is MIT grad Gloria Chao's latest novel.

American Panda
Gloria Chao
Simon & Schuster / Simon Pulse
Feb. 6, 2018

Mei Lu is a lot like me. She’s a teenager. She and I both have struggles, with secret-keeping and romantic relationships and rashes in weird places (uh … I’m joking about that last one). She’s also an Asian-American freshman at MIT.

However, Mei and I differ in ways that prevent us from being friends, no matter how much I’d like that. First, and foremost, she’s fictional.

While I probably exist in the same realm of reality you occupy, Mei exists in the world of American Panda, the brainchild of MIT graduate Gloria Chao. American Panda, at first glance, is just a standard bildungsroman with a few reader-attracting tweaks: its protagonist’s main quest is to find a compromise between her parent’s goals for her future and her own, with a side battle that is Surviving MIT. But American Panda is not exactly that.

In some ways, it’s better. Yes, Mei’s primary fight seems cliché at first — her penny-pinching, overbearing immigrant parents insist that she focus entirely on becoming a doctor and marrying a successful Taiwanese man, though germaphobe Mei has a nonconforming crush — but it unfolds in a surprisingly real way. Most YA authors would start here and sugarcoat until they got a recognizable cupcake: Mei would find her dream, convince her parents of it, and give the occasional uplifting speech to a diversity nonprofit while holding hands with a very attractive man.

But Chao is more mature than that. She writes both Mei and her parents as the bad guys. They take turns being selfish, judgmental, and wrong. Eventually Mei and her mother share a realization — they can start solving problems related to their cultural differences by discussing them — but, naturally, their epiphanies do not occur at the same time. Trouble is had. Trouble is resolved, but not quite. At the end of the book, Mei and her family are still learning, and that feels right.

My favorite part of American Panda was Mei’s cultural dilemma, which thankfully takes center stage. Chao is not squeamish when it comes to stereotypes:  she highlights their importance while emphasizing their insignificance. Her characters are guilty of formulaic thoughts — Mei is jealous of many a “perky blonde”; her first roommate accuses Mei’s ancestors of killing hers; a boy in her dorm immediately assumes (correctly) that Mei has tiger parents. Throughout the story, though, Chao goes out of her way to show that stereotypes aren’t everything. Mei meets many other second-generation Taiwanese girls, each with a unique personality and upbringing. She sees that her experience is only one point on a spectrum. She stops to consider why her parents, among others, think the way they do. She opens her mind. She grows up.

Unfortunately, while Mei’s Journey to Cultural Sensitivity was well-developed, the subplots of American Panda were not. The love story is hasty and one-dimensional, and I regret to inform you that Mei’s MIT adventure is, too. It seems like Mei’s status as a student is ornamental. She doesn’t seem to worry about classes, or struggle with psets — she earns 100-percents and 68s whenever another storyline requires it. The way she tosses around MIT lingo is stilted; her in-school adventures, like chairing and viewing MIThenge, come off as similarly contrived.

American Panda is still worth a read. Despite its flaws,  it’s a good reminder that cultural differences are worth exposing in order to make the world a more comfortable place for everyone. I’ll close with a message that Chao shared with me: “I hope a few takeaways [from American Panda] are that there are two sides to every story, that it’s possible to love someone and disagree with them at the same time, and that communication is difficult but important.”