Mei Lu is a 17-year-old Taiwanese-American freshman at MIT. According to her parents, her life is all planned out: she will become a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy League graduate. But what they don't know is that she's a germophobe ("bacteria-ridden patients" make her "skin crawl") who feels more at home in a dance studio than an operating room. She also has a crush on a "nerd-hot" Japanese-American boy. Straddling two worlds without fully belonging to either of them, Mei attempts to navigate her new independence while still trying to respect her immigrant parents' hopes and dreams.
In American Panda, Gloria Chao skillfully and effectively puts the reader in Mei's shoes, highlighting how it feels to be a first-generation American. One notable way she does this is through transcripts of voicemails from Mei's mom, aunt and grandmother that include gossip ("I heard from Mrs. Tian who heard from Mrs. Lin..."), guilt trips ("Why you never pick up? I know you're not in class!") and health and beauty tips ("I read about these spoons that fight fat.... Your belly needs it!"). Sprinkled between chapters, these snippets simulate what it's like to be on the receiving end of constant criticism and advice, albeit well-meaning. Additionally, the Mandarin words that are scattered throughout--constant reminders that children of immigrant parents are living in two worlds--further cement the reader in Mei's experience.
Between embarrassingly funny scenes of Mei's mother fussing over her and emotionally charged, tense familial interactions, there's a sweet narrative about Mei falling in love and coming into her own through dance. It's in these in-between moments, when Mei's true self shines, that Chao does some of her best work. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader