49 pages 1 hour read

Gloria Chao

American Panda

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


American Panda is a 2018 contemporary young adult novel by Taiwanese American author Gloria Chao. The novel is a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old Taiwanese American MIT student, Mei Lu, who must balance her parents’ rigid cultural rules and expectations for her future with her own desires. The story explores themes surrounding cultural identity, family dynamics, and anxiety as Mei strives to reconcile the traditional Chinese values taught to her by her parents with the American college lifestyle these values are often at odds with. American Panda has been praised for its humor and its earnest portrayal of cultural issues faced by adolescents and young adults.

This guide refers to the 2018 Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide discuss anti-Asian racism and cultural stereotypes, familial pressure and conflict, and identity struggles, including references to body shaming. They also include a brief mention of anti-gay bias.

Plot Summary

Mei Lu is a 17-year-old college freshman studying biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is having dinner with her traditional Taiwanese parents when a family friend approaches to try to matchmake Mei with her son. Mei’s mother, Mama Lu, turns her away, claiming that Mei is too good for her son. Mama Lu is proud that Mei will become a doctor but criticizes her plus-sized body. When Mei defends herself, her mother calls her disrespectful. Mama Lu tells Mei about a potential love match, Eugene Huang, who is a premedical student at Harvard. However, Mei spots a classmate whom she has a crush on, Darren Takahashi, and the two chat before Mama Lu dismisses him because he is Japanese. Mama Lu is prejudiced because of Japan’s historical occupation of Taiwan. Mei yearns for independence but resigns herself to remaining under her parents’ watch at MIT. Mei’s mother panics when she can’t locate Mei. After Mei reassures her that she’s fine, they tour the campus, which her mother enjoys.

In her dorm, Mei meets her new roommate, Nicolette, a replacement for her previous roommate, Leslie, who was also Taiwanese. Leslie was hateful toward Mei because she claimed that Mei’s ancestors invaded Taiwan during their escape from communist China. After an awkward encounter with her dormmates, Mei stumbles upon the Porter Room, an abandoned room she decides to make her secret place to dance, an activity her parents don’t approve of. Mei also secretly teaches dance at a local studio, even though she feels guilty for lying.

When Mei develops a vaginal rash from a pair of new jeans, she meets the school gynecologist, Dr. Chang, who is also Asian. Mei finds Dr. Chang to be subservient and aloof. Mei asks Dr. Chang about her family and passion for the job. Dr. Chang tells her that the job is stable and well paying, but her reticence doesn’t reassure Mei. When Mei shadows Dr. Chang, Mei wonders if she is cut out to be a doctor because of her fear of germs. Later, Mei tries dancing away her fears in the Porter Room but is dismayed when dancing doesn’t calm her. The next week, Mei learns that Dr. Chang is treating Nicolette for chlamydia. Mei runs into Darren after, and he takes her to a secret outdoor garden on campus, where she learns that he is also majoring in biology with plans to be a professor. He asks about her dreams, but she makes an excuse to leave.

When Mr. Lu’s mother and sister visit, Mei discovers that they are even more traditional than her parents. They scold Mei for trying to defend Mama Lu from their criticisms. Mei’s brother, Xing, whom the Lus have disowned, surprises them with his fiancée. The Lus yell at him because he has chosen his fiancée, Esther, over them. Esther cannot have children, and having children is extremely important in their culture because Xing is the eldest and only son. Mei feels guilty and confused for not defending her brother. Later, Mama Lu scolds Mei for disrespecting her grandmother and reminds Mei that she must marry a Taiwanese man who understands her values and traditions.

Mei visits her old friend Helen, who is also Taiwanese, at Dartmouth because Mei wants to better understand their restrictive culture. Mei is jealous because Helen’s parents aren’t overbearing, and Helen doesn’t see her culture as a hindrance. Back at MIT, Mei goes ice skating with Darren despite feeling guilty for betraying her parents. She shares her anxieties with him, but they get into an argument. Upset, Mei reaches out to Xing. They have lunch in secret, and Xing reveals that he felt pressured by and resentful of his parents’ traditions. When Mei reaches out to Darren to apologize, they agree to be friends as they witness a campus tradition called “MIThenge.” Mei tries again to embrace biology but is overwhelmed with anxiety during anatomy.

Mei’s relationships with Xing and Darren develop further while she struggles with her guilt. Mei performs a traditional Chinese dance at the Association of Taiwanese Students night market, which reminds her of her family trips to Taiwan. When Mei’s parents discover her meeting with Xing, she reveals everything, and they disown her. Mei is heartbroken, so Nicolette helps her let loose by rolling on chairs in the MIT tunnels. Later, Mei and Darren sneak onto a roof and share a romantic moment, and Mei invites Darren to Xing’s wedding.

At the wedding, Mr. Lu’s sister, Yilong, interrupts. She declares that Xing and Mei are responsible for her mother Nainai’s death. She blames them for bringing shame to the family. Mei is distraught and breaks up with Darren because her family is too complicated. When Mama Lu secretly informs Mei of the details for Nainai’s funeral against her husband’s wishes, Mei sneaks into the service to say goodbye. The whole family, including Xing and Esther, have a heated confrontation during which they learn that Esther is pregnant with a boy. Still, Mei’s parents are too proud to apologize.

Mama Lu begins meeting with Mei in secret even though she accuses Mei of being “Ying-Na,” a girl who disobeyed her parents and whom other parents use as a cautionary tale. Mei finds the real Ying-Na, who now goes by Christine and is a comedian. Christine’s courage to rebel inspires Mei. When Mama Lu meets with Mei again, Mama Lu reveals that when Mr. Lu discovered their meeting, she stood up for herself and for Mei. Mama Lu apologizes for reinforcing the unfair gender roles she was taught. She claims that she just wants Mei to be happy and trusts her to make her own path.

Mei surprises Darren with a grand gesture, and they reconcile. Six months later, Mei visits Xing and Esther, who have just had their baby, Jonathan. During dinner, Darren impresses Mama Lu with his open-mindedness, acceptance of Mei, and goal of being a professor. Mei has hope that her father will also change his mind about Mei’s decisions. When Mama Lu tells Mei that she is proud of her, Mei is overcome with happiness. Mei continues teaching her dance classes, whose participants include Christine and Dr. Chang. She notes that Dr. Chang seems more confident as she dances. Afterward, Mei feels proud and content with her own life.

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