I wanted to love American Panda, but it fell flat for me

Title: American Panda
Series: N/A
Author: Gloria Chao
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Coming of Age
Publication: February 6th 2018, Simon Pulse
Pages: 306, Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 3/5 cupcakes
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?
American Panda was an adorable, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking read about finding your place among two cultures, respecting your parents whilst pursuing your own dreams, trying to recover a relationship with your disowned brother and pursuing a romance with a boy who your parents disapprove of based on race alone. This #ownvoices debut novel about Taiwanese-American Mei was a heartwarming read; however, there were quite a few things that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I was hoping to. 

If you've been reading my reviews for awhile, you'll know I'm a sucker for YA contemporary novels. They're generally filled with complex, dynamic characters; profound thoughts and funny scenes; and an adorable romance. I adore contemporaries. Naturally, I was expecting to fall in love with this book within the first few pages; however, that didn't exactly happen. I read the first few pages and felt disappoint. Then I read the next few pages and still felt disappointed. Then I'd finished the whole book and still felt disappointed. There wasn't anything about this book that I really loved. Generally I like the writing or the romance or the characters...I generally like something. Not with this, though. There wasn't a single element that I felt was very well-written and that I loved. I was underwhelmed and disappointed.

This was the first thing that really stood out to me: the writing. It was choppy. It was confusing. There were a million different topics being touched upon in the first couple of pages that had a dizzying effect on me. In the first few pages, the author tries to fit in as many elements of Asian culture as possible. The book was loaded with Chinese words and traditional thinking...and stereotypes? Obviously, I'm not Chinese-American, so I can't say much about the representation, but there seemed to be a LOT of stereotypes in the first few chapters. From the pushy parents, the thinking that only doctors were valuable, the disowning of children for absurd reasons, the first born son being super important, girls not having much value...it just felt like Mei's parents were the epitome of stereotypical Asian parents. 

 There were also so many things that were included in those first few pages that I felt quite lost and like the author was trying to cram as much information about Chinese culture into this first few pages, when she had the whole book to incorporate Chinese culture into American Panda. In the first few pages alone there was talk of menopause, periods, body image, gossip about others in the Asian community, an awkward encounter with Mei's crush...all this one after the other. It was just too many different topics that were constantly going on, and it felt like this for the majority of the book. 

As I mentioned previously, the writing was choppy. The sentences didn't flow smoothly and I often felt quite jarred by them. It read in a very disjointed fashion, and it made the book seem quite stilted. Like a scene happens where one of Mei's family members bursts into a ceremony and curses everyone and then leaves very shortly after. There were significant things that happened but they held no substance, so they fell completely flat. There was also a lot of telling and not showing, which made the book seem quite juvenile in places. The simpleness of the writing made the book feel like it was for the lower end of YA, but the content definitely wasn't so. 

This was another thing that I struggled with. I really thought this would be a cute, fluffy, clean book...but it wasn't. There was a lot of talk about STDs (chlamydia and herpes). There was swearing and blasphemy. There was a lot of talk about bodily stuff that I didn't sign up for. I think it's good that menstruation was mentioned, as many YA books are completely devoid of  that...but there was just a lot of stuff mentioned and often in quite a gross manner. I really didn't enjoy it.

That being said, there were some funny scenes that had me smiling, especially some of the things Mei's mom said. However, for the vast majority of the book, I didn't enjoy the writing as much as I'd hoped to.
The relationships were dysfunctional. Mei's parents, mainly her dad, were quite awful. The mom grew on me, and her character development was really well-written. She had more depth to her than some of the other characters, and I understood why she often acted the way she did. She added humor to the story and I really appreciated her character arc. However, the relationships in this book were quite toxic and, again, didn't have a lot of substance. Mei's parents completely disregarded her happiness and what she wanted out of life, which I understand is because of their very traditional thinking. I'm sure there are people who have parents like this, but it was quite difficult and frustrating to read about. I was hoping the relationship between Mei, her parents and brother, would be resolved by the end of the book...but it was quite bittersweet. I really struggled with the parents, but thankfully the mom changed quite a lot and became more involved with Mei and what she wanted. Also, can I just say that the dad made me SO mad. He disowned Mei's brother because his girlfriend couldn't have children???

There was also a friendship between Mei and Nicolette, her roommate, towards the end of the book. But it seemed like a very shallow friendship. Nicolette went from saying vile racist things to Mei...and then by the end of the book they were big buddies. The transition between Nicolette's attitude happened so suddenly. There was no actual development. Mei also met up with another friend at one point in the book, but it was only for one scene and didn't add anything of value to the story. 😖
This is a tricky one...I liked Mei. I did. She was sweet, awkward and funny. She wanted to please her parents, but she didn't completely want to lose who she was just to make her parents happy. That being said, I never really connected to Mei. There were moments where she was shy and awkward, then other moments where she wasn't that at all. Her character didn't seem very consistent and, simply put, I just couldn't fully connect to her. Again, I think this may have been because of the stilted writing. It kind of made everything in the book seem quite wooden.

There were a range of characters I encountered in this novel: Mei, Xing (her disowned brother), Darren (the love interest), her parents, Dr. Chang, Nicolette. However, I never really loved any of them. I liked them well enough, but there wasn't a moment in this novel that made my heart sigh and say "I love these characters". None of them felt very fleshed out, and I felt like I was acquainted with them but didn't really know them. A contemporary needs to have strong, well-written characters and these characters personally fell flat for me.

I liked the romance. I didn't love it, but I did like it. Darren and Mei complemented one another quite well. I liked how he showed her it was okay to be her own person and that he supported her when she was going through a rough time with forging her own path. He was supportive, sweet, and funny - a solid love interest! 
The one thing I did really enjoy was the plot. I didn't know that Mei was a dancer and that was one of her passions when I began reading this book - I was really happy to find that out once I'd begun reading! I love books about dancers/dancing, so I really enjoyed reading about Mei's dance classes. I really liked the story line of Mei choosing a different career path to the one her parents had chosen for her. I could TOTALLY relate to Mei being grossed out when she shadowed a medical student/doctor - anything medical related freaks me out just a smidge.

American Panda is a diverse contemporary read, featuring humor and heartbreak, that I expected to love. Unfortunately, the stilted writing, flat characters, and shallow relationships prevented me from loving this book as much as I hoped I would.

I give it: 3/5 cupcakes
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- Blasphemy
- Swearing 
- Mention of STDS