American Panda is one of the best YA contemporaries I’ve ever read.
It was as compulsively readable as it was multifaceted: it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s about coming to terms with your heritage, about the way traditions can change with immigration and time, about intergenerational miscommunication, about unlearning internalized biases, and it’s also a cute romance. And none of these aspects was neglected.
This book follows Mei, a 17-year-old Taiwanese-American girl who has very traditional, controlling parents and is now studying at MIT to become a doctor. The problem? She has mysophobia (yes, finally a book with phobia representation, and an intersectional one!), and she is also falling in love with Darren Takahashi, who is Japanese – her parents would disown her if they knew.
I really liked Mei. She’s a well-rounded, likable character, and she felt real. Everything about this book felt surprisingly realistic, down to little details (liquid nitrogen ice cream is a thing that science nerds do at uni. True!). This also meant that Mei’s interactions with other characters felt realistic, and so did the side characters themselves. I loved almost all of them, and I was really surprised by both Ying-Na and Nicolette.
Also, it’s great that we’re getting novels with intersectional main characters (a fat, mentally ill Taiwanese-American girl!) that aren’t about their marginalizations. Yes, Mei deals with racist, fatphobic and ableist microaggressions, but the story isn’t about that.
The cover of American Panda may make you think this is a cute romance in the vein of When Dimple Met Rishi, and while this book does have a cute romance, it is not about that, and it gets really intense at times – the family dynamics are not healthy at all here and that may be triggering for some. Also, there’s a gory scene and frequent mentions of STDs.
The only thing I didn’t love was the writing. It wasn’t bad by any means, and I found it addicting, but I also felt it was a bit overdramatic at times.
My rating: ★★★★½