American Panda

Feb 18, 2018

Book review - spoilers

This is a spoilers review.

I picked up this book, American Panda because the blurb made it seem like I was going to get something like Crazy Rich Asians, which was trashy but enjoyable. Here is the blurb:

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.

I rated this book two stars, the lowest grade that I can give something that I have finished. I want to explain here why I believe that reading this book is a poor use of your time.

First, this book is not funny. The blurb says, “laugh-out-loud”. It promises me something fun and funny - like I said, something akin to Crazy Rich Asians. That book was over the top and amusing - with the main character (also Asian American) whisked from place to place befuddled by what’s happening in front of her.

This book is dour and weighed down with its crippling, thick angst. Its main character is introverted, extremely passive, and seems to be on the verge of a severe mental breakdown. Events happen to her without her having much of a say. Her boyfriend literally comes up to her and introduces himself and they magically hit it off from there. Multiple times, she wants to scream out to her overbearing parents about how their suppression hurts her. She does not say it - over and over again - and then takes the time to repeatedly explain to us why again and again.

I would describe it as something like a bad Korean melodrama, in which you want to shake everyone and scream at them, “JUST SAY IT!!!”

The humor does not work. It is not funny. The events seem improbable without being outlandish. The insertion of Chinese language is random, unexplained, and also not funny either. The jokes are more forced than a plugged-up froyo machine. Late in the book, a character who is a stand-up comedian gets up in front of an audience and tells jokes about being Asian (this gets double points for also being mean too). The audience in the book laughs but I certainly did not.

Second, this book is ephemeral and lacks grounding. Crazy Rich Asians takes place in the well-known city of Singapore but creates a fun, exciting atmosphere with exotic descriptions of its unusual settings. You will always have an idea of where the characters are at.

These vivid descriptions are missing in American Panda. The book takes place in MIT but it is not well explained to me. I did not go to MIT - I barely remember university now - and listening to inside references being dropped in the text about certain landmarks did not help me gain a clear understanding of our setting. I just have the barest mental description - snow here, a square there.

The result is a never-ending monologue of feelings that is immensely frustrating. I feel like one of those brains in a bottle, floating in a silent scream.

Thirdly, this book’s story has been told many … many … many times. I am Asian American, the son of two immigrants, and I am tired of reading the same tale over and over again. When I told my sister about this book and its premise, all she said was “Oh boy”.

Can’t any other type of book get approved for publishing? I have read this sort of stuff in college essays (and teen websites) over and over again - “My parents worked hard to come to America. I am a child of two cultures and they are clashing. Behold my angst.” The main character actually says during an argument, “I am Asian American, can’t I be a little more American?”

I guess this stuff sells or else they would not keep publishing it. But what was partly so good about Crazy Rich Asians was that it wasn’t just another “straddling two worlds” story. It was a story about people for whom being Asian was already part of their identity and they are confident in it.

An Asian American immigrant’s tale is inherently insecure. It’s 300 pages of anxiety and confusion about people’s identity. How is that fun or funny to read?

Okay, whatever. I recognize that I am at a point in my own life where I am confident in who I am and what my place is in the world. But I struggled too when I was young. To those who are now going through that struggle themselves, I can see the value of a book that they can sympathize with. Whether or not this is the type of character you should be sympathizing with is up for debate. I will argue vociferously for no.

But yes. Maybe a good book that takes an interesting, fresh angle to the story could be worth your time … thus we come to my fourth point.

Fourthly, the book makes “being Asian” feel alien, outdated, and ridiculous, even for Asian-Americans. This book elevates the “American” in Asian-American by putting down the “Asian” part.

The young Asian American at the end of this book would come to the conclusion that their Asian heritage and culture is outdated and does not belong in the United States. The main character’s relationship with her parents is messy. But to hear it from her side the reason it is the way it is not because the daughter and mother are at different points in their life but because of this “traditional Asian culture”. If it were not for this traditional Asian culture, they would have an amazing relationship together.

Okay we might be able to argue that the parents are a misrepresentation of Asian culture, like that of the super controlling Christian or Mormon parents that we find in literature from time to time. They are extremists. But the problem to me is that this extremist version of traditional Asian culture appears to be shared by the wider Boston Asian community.

I think I should go back to the unfunny standup sequence late in the book. I don’t have the thing verbatim but the longer I listened to it, the more I got the sense that the person giving the standup sequence also had the same experience growing up as the main character. I found that so very unrealistic.

Here’s my conclusion. Look, this book is clearly autobiographical - the author and the main character have gone to MIT and it reads a lot like a memoir in some places - so I cannot speak to whether or not certain details and characters in the book “seem real”. I appreciate that the author spent time and poured her life story into this book. I just wish that it turned out to be a better, more enjoyable product.

Read Crazy Rich Asians instead if you want Asian themed literature that is not about growing up and being an Asian American. If you are truly interested in a comprehensive, deeply thought piece about the Asian American experience, I would recommend Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Her current book Pachinko is out and getting her a lot of buzz but her debut was amazing too.