Cultural Diversity Reads: “American Panda” by Gloria Chao
Why are you still pre-med when you’re afraid of germs and fall asleep in biology class?
Because if you don’t become a doctor, you’ll be disowned by your family, meaning no financial support to finish college and no right to enter what was once your home or to call your parents “mother” and “father” again. Though not hard to imagine for people coming from households dominated by tiger parents, Mei Lu, the protagonist of Gloria Chao’s novel American Panda, along with many other Asian Americans, find themselves in exactly this situation where they are bound by cultural tradition to follow the path of the so-called “model minority.”
Following first-year college student Mei, who struggles between the expectations of her traditional Taiwanese family and her own career, life, and romantic interests, American Panda is recommended for anyone who wishes to learn about Asian American culture. Many aspects of Taiwanese culture are illustrated in this novel, such as when Mei’s parents insist that she become a doctor, which they consider a stable and respectable job, despite the germophobia that drives her to go through a bottle of hand sanitizer each day. Her parents are also arranging a marriage between her and a Taiwanese boy she barely knows even though she’s attracted to a Japanese American student from her university, which, due to the Japanese invasion of China during WWII, is a taboo for many families. Though Mei longs to find a career she is interested in, the possibility of being disowned by her family if she goes against their wishes seems to allow no other future than to marry someone she doesn’t love and suffer as a doctor.
As an Asian American, the traditional Taiwanese elements in this story such as family restaurant dinners with stinky tofu and Mei’s mother’s insistence that her daughter give her updates every day to make sure she’s safe and studying, are all too familiar. Besides bringing readers into the everyday life of the Asian American protagonist, this novel also provides valuable insights into one of the unseen motivators behind the high achievements of some Asian Americans: the fear of disownment. Mei’s own older brother was cut off from the family because he chose to marry a woman their parents did not approve of, making disownment not only a vague threat but a realistic consequence for Mei if she does not become a doctor. This “incentive” to choose and study hard in a well-paying field does not only happen in this novel; I have met several Asian-Americans who were majoring in certain fields because it was the only one their families were willing to pay tuition for, and I personally was not allowed to apply to private universities unless I chose a major that would guarantee high wages and employment rates. Though not all Asian American families have the same standards, disownment is still prevalent and determines the career paths of many Asian Americans.
This novel also argues that the power Asian American parents have over their children is not the only factor at play by discussing how the overwhelming sense of duty the younger generation feels for the older generation forces them to strive for success. Whenever Mei practices traditional Chinese dance, which she actually enjoys, instead of studying for biology, she remembers her mother’s words “I know you’ll get into the best medical school and become the best doctor” and is overridden with guilt. Her wish not to disappoint her mother constantly clashes with her resentment of her parents for dictating her choices, making readers realize how difficult it is for Asian Americans to deviate from the paths planned for them.
Mei’s rare narrative in young adult novels unveils the cultural forces at work behind the top grades and other achievements of Asian Americans that outsiders usually see, showing how their success comes at a high personal cost. Though Mei’s family values do not represent those of every Asian American family, her story is a common example of how Asian Americans are bound to their families and how hard it is to find their own paths. Featuring many Asian American characters and an honest description of what honoring the family culture means, American Panda is a great read for anyone interested in delving beyond the myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority.”
About the Writer: Julia Zhu (Cornell ’22) is a freshman from Oregon studying biology. She enjoys novels that help her understand and explore different cultures and identities. Her favorite city is Tsingtao, China because of its mild climate and slow-paced living environment.
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