This is the third in my interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Gloria Chao. Her debut novel, American Panda, will be releasing in Spring 2018, which cannot arrive soon enough!
Since there’s no cover for American Panda yet, here’s the aesthetic collage she put together for her book:
Not surprisingly, there is food involved. But also the Great Dome of MIT, an MIT class ring, a stethoscope, traditional Chinese dance, and terracotta warriors, not to mention DDR, and are those wedding decorations? Time to find out more.
At seventeen, Mei Lu should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when she reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.
My comments and questions are marked in bold and labeled “SW.”
SW: To start off, since food is such an important part of Taiwanese culture and because your book’s aesthetic collage inspired me/made me hungry, what’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are more than welcome to list multiple foods as I’m sure it is impossible to choose just one.)
Gloria: I agree, it’s not possible to choose just one. But if I absolutely had to, I’d go with soup dumplings because I will never say no to one, no matter how full I am. Other favorites include shredded turnip cake (drool), pork belly buns, braised pork rice, three cup eggplant, and oyster pancake. Aiyah, I’m so hungry now!
SW: Soup dumplings are everything. Too bad there’s no Din Tai Fung anywhere near me.
I feel like I have the Goodreads synopsis for American Panda memorized by now and need more teasers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the story and the inspiration behind it beyond what’s in the synopsis?
Gloria: Ah thank you so much! American Panda is the book I wish I had as a young adult, and I started writing it because I wanted other children of immigrants to know (1) they aren’t alone, and (2) it’s okay to feel stuck between two cultures without fully belonging in either.
Also, I wanted to write a Chinese My Big Fat Greek Wedding chock-full of cultural humor. An example: in the first five pages, a family friend compliments the main character’s big nose, referencing a Chinese superstition that having a big nose means you will make a lot of money. But of course, the protagonist, Mei, only hears that she has a gigantic nose, which is not something an American teen typically wants to hear. And yes, I am speaking from personal experience—I was cursed, er, blessed with a large “lucky” nose.
American Panda is also about figuring out who you are and how to be that person. Being different makes it hard to fit in, but I didn’t feel whole until I owned it. Mei Lu may struggle with her identity, but she doesn’t hesitate to own the parts she does know—like ordering hot chocolate in front of her crush even though she thinks it’ll look juvenile, or continuing to dance even though her parents want her to focus on her studies.
SW: *checks my nose* I think mine’s fairly average sized, but hopefully hard work will make up for that, ha. American Panda sounds like a book that I would have loved as a teen. I only had one #ownvoices YA featuring a Taiwanese American protagonist when I was a teen.
Writing a book that’s considered “own voices” means you’re writing about a character whose identity or experience(s) you share in some way. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s autobiographical (which is an assumption I’ve heard several marginalized authors say they’ve dealt with). How much of American Panda would you say is based on your own life? In what ways is it different?
Gloria: While Mei’s storyline is not completely autobiographical, it is rooted in truth. The themes, struggles, and emotional arcs are based on my experiences, as are the MIT setting and medical scenes. I also drew upon the lives of friends and acquaintances who trusted me with their stories. The novel is based on experiences, but it has been fictionalized and no characters or situations are exactly as they unfolded in reality.
For example, my parents did not insist I become a doctor, but they initially were not on board with my career change from dentist to writer. While I am not as germophobic as Mei, I always carry hand sanitizer with me, and I struggled with spit, pus, and cadaver bits in dental school. While my mother was supportive of my non-Chinese husband, she did try to set me up with her Taiwanese friends’ sons on multiple occasions.
As for Mei’s personality, she’s an exaggerated version of me, especially her awkward social skills and sweaty palms. When she tries to flirt with her crush, she pops these weird hip-level waves, and yes, I did that when I met my husband.
I worked hard to keep the book based on real experiences to breathe more life into the pages. Also, it was important to me to keep the story authentic. Since there aren’t enough Taiwanese-American stories out there (and I hope there will be more soon), I wanted to do everything I could to write an accurate representation of at least a few Taiwanese-American experiences, starting with mine. In the future, I plan to continue writing Taiwanese-American characters, exploring even more personal demons along with storylines that diverge from my own.
SW: The doctor thing is so real for Taiwanese kids, and I found out from my dad that there’s a historical reason behind it. During Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan, one of the few professions that offered upward social mobility for Taiwanese people was studying medicine. My dad himself was faced with that pressure early in his life, but thankfully my grandfather let it go later on. I was lucky that my parents never pressured me to become a doctor, but it’s still a career that’s highly valued among Taiwanese parents for sure.
After thinking about it a bit, I realized the synopsis for American Panda focuses a lot on what Mei Lu doesn’t like or want. So I’m curious, what are some things that do spark her interest and passion?
Gloria: Dancing is Mei’s passion. She loves to mix styles and music in her private dance sessions—the one place she feels like herself, where she doesn’t have to choose between her two cultures or identities. Her dream is to open a dance studio where she can teach Chinese dance to hip hop music, or ballet to Chinese pop.
Mei is also a nerd, but not in the stereotypical way. She’s intellectually curious and fits in at MIT in a way she never has elsewhere.
And of course, she loves Chinese food. There are food references and dumpling metaphors throughout the book!
SW: Food references are the greatest! Dumplings aside, I think this is only the second YA story featuring an Asian American whose passion is dance that I’ve heard of (the first being Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra an dDhonielle Clayton, which features a biracial white/Korean American ballerina as one of the three main viewpoint characters). I’m constantly yearning for more Asian American stories that focus on sports and dance and art and so on because the stereotype is that we’re only good at academics and nothing else.
This next question is just for fun: If Mei Lu had a Twitter account, what would her handle/@ be and what would her profile bio say?
TIM the MIT beaver’s sidekick. DDR maniac. Dumpling expert. Dancing is dreaming with your feet! 💃
SW: TwirlingPanda brings to mind the cutest image. I went to Google and this was among the image search results:
I’m greatly entertained by how appropriate it is.
It’s rare for YA to tackle college since college students are generally considered to be outside of the range of YA. Personally, I wish there were more stories about the first years of college, not only because most first/second-year students are 18/19 and still technically teens (legal status aside) but also because it’s another stage of the coming-of-age period in life. If you’re not living at home, it involves a different environment than high school because you’re not as beholden to your parents, for better or for worse. Would you say that writing about a college student influenced the way you approached the story, and if so, how?
Gloria: I knew from the beginning that I wanted Mei to be in college for the exact reasons you mentioned. I wanted her to explore the fear, freedom, and self-discovery that comes with being on your own for the first time. I needed her out of her parents’ house to realize that what she wants isn’t the same as what they want. I also needed her doctor future to be closer on the horizon, and I wanted her to be struggling with what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
And the more fun reason I wrote a college setting: I wanted to share some of MIT’s zany, unique culture with the world. Some scenes involve sneaking onto the iconic dome, chair surfing in the underground tunnels, hacking, and being nerdy in the best way possible.
Like you, I wish there was more college YA. Unfortunately, it’s a hurdle in the publishing industry. I’m grateful every day to have landed an agent and publisher supportive of American Panda’s MIT setting!
SW: I visited MIT with my family years and years ago, in 2007, and I remember the distinctive architecture and the lore surrounding the Great Dome and senior pranks. Later, I applied to MIT and didn’t get in, but no hard feelings. I’m excited to explore MIT through Mei’s eyes.
Last question set! What was the hardest part of writing American Panda? What was your favorite part about writing it?
Gloria: The hardest part of writing American Panda was finding the line between fact and fiction. The first draft of my book was essentially a memoir; I didn’t know how to separate my life from the narrative. It took three complete rewrites for the characters and plot to blossom from their real-life counterparts into fiction.
Funnily enough, my favorite part is closely related to the hardest. American Panda forced me to ask my mother questions about her upbringing, mine, and our culture, and it eventually improved our communication and helped us understand each other better. I drew upon all this while writing, and there’s one chapter toward the end of the book that always makes me tear up because it reminds me how far my mother and I have come.
Thank you so much, Shenwei, for these thoughtful, wonderful questions, and for putting this together for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! I’m honored to be a part of it!
SW:I also have to thank you so much for answering these questions so thoroughly. I’m honored to host on you my blog! I can’t wait for more news on American Panda and for it to hit the shelves next spring. 🙂
Gloria Chao is an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer. She currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband for whom she became a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for Dance Dance Revolution, cooperative board games, or spontaneous dance parties. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suctioned out. American Panda is her debut novel.