'American Panda' By Gloria Chao Is A Touching Story About Culture, Family, And Following Your Heart — Read An Excerpt!

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Back in June, Bustle revealed the cover for Gloria Chao's debut novel. Now, I'm pleased to say that Bustle has an American Panda excerpt you can read before you pick up Chao's first book in stores on Feb. 6.

American Panda centers on 17-year-old Mei, a Taiwanese-American girl who is forced to reconcile her parents' wishes with her own desires when she starts her first year at MIT. On track to be a doctor and marry a fellow Taiwanese-American in the same line of work, Mei's conflict lies in the fact that she is germaphobic, bored with her biology coursework, and has a big fat crush on Darren Takahashi — another MIT student whose Japanese heritage makes him an impossible match in the eyes of Mei's mother. Reconnecting with her estranged brother Xing, who was ousted from the family circle for dating against their parents' wishes, Mei must decide whether she should continue to keep her secrets or just go with the family flow.

Gloria Chao has a lot in common with her young protagonist, having graduated from MIT and worked as a dentist before becoming a writer of young-adult fiction. American Panda is her debut novel. A second book, Misaligned, is currently slated for a 2019 release.

Check out an excerpt from Gloria Chao's American Panda below, and share your thoughts with me on Twitter!

American Panda by Gloria Chao, $15.29, Amazon

The stench of the restaurant’s specialty walloped my senses as soon as I entered. Even with seventeen years of practice, I didn’t have a fighting chance against a dish named stinky tofu. I gagged.

My mother sniffed and smiled. “Smells like home.”

Mmm. Who doesn’t love the scent of athlete’s foot with lunch? I held a fist to my face, desperately inhaling the pomegranate scent of my hand sanitizer.

She swatted my hand down. “Don’t touch your face, Mei. Give yourself pimples for no reason. There are no ugly women. Only lazy women.”

In my head, I counted to ten in English, then Mandarin. Two more hours, three tops.

Mrs. Pan, a family friend who used to drive me to Chinese school, came over to our table to say hello, which apparently required grabbing my chin to inspect my face. My instinct to be deferential (heightened by my mother’s side-eye) warred with my desire to shake off Mrs. Pan’s bacteria-covered hands. When she finished her inspection and let go, I fought the urge to cover my now-sticky chin in pomegranate antiseptic, my trusty little sidekick.

“I can’t believe this is little Mei,” Mrs. Pan squeaked. “You got pretty! And look how big your nose is! That’s promising.”

I pasted on a well-rehearsed smile but couldn’t keep said nose from scrunching. I like my nose just fine, thank you very much, but years of “compliments” about its large size had made me insecure.

Mrs. Pan misinterpreted my embarrassment for confusion and explained, “It’s a Chinese superstition—having a big nose means you will have lots of money.”

Yes, because people will pay me to see my clown nose?

Mrs. Pan misinterpreted my embarrassment for confusion and explained, “It’s a Chinese superstition—having a big nose means you will have lots of money.”

“Aiyah,” my mother said, using the Chinese word of exasperation that, for her, preceded every faux brag. “I do hope Mei makes money in the future, not for her sake, but mine. She just started at MIT this week, premed of course, and her tuition is driving me to an early grave. Ah, if she hadn’t skipped a grade, I would have had one more year to save up money. Sometimes I feel her intelligence is a curse.”

I probably should’ve been embarrassed, but this was the only form of praise I ever heard. I replayed my mother’s words in my head, letting the undertones of pride embrace me. Then, in anticipation of the round of my-child’s-brain-is-bigger-than-your-child’s that usually followed, I held my breath. Like if I breathed too loudly, I might miss it.

I probably should’ve been embarrassed, but this was the only form of praise I ever heard. I replayed my mother’s words in my head, letting the undertones of pride embrace me.

But Mrs. Pan went in another direction. A much worse, infinitely more embarrassing direction.

“Is Mei single?” she asked my mother as if I’d disappeared. “My firstborn son, Hanwei, is the sweetest, smartest boy, and he just might be interested in Mei!”

This was a first for me, probably sparked by my entrance to college, which to some Asian mothers meant releasing the hounds—husband-hunting season had begun. Never mind that I was only seventeen and had been forbidden to date until a week ago.

Mrs. Pan flashed a picture, always at the ready. The corners were dog-eared from frequent trips in and out of her pocket. I smiled, but it wasn’t because I thought Hanwei was cute. I could never date the boy who once peed on my foot. Sure, we were six at the time and in a car, but to me he would always be the boy who couldn’t control his bladder. And to him I was the carsick girl who had to carry a vomit bag—aka a recycled Ziploc my mother washed out by hand after each upchuck, too stingy to dip into the mountain of new ones in the garage. God, I might need a Ziploc right now at the thought of Pee-Boy and me together.

“Mei has lots of suitors,” my mother said. A lie. “Nice seeing you. Enjoy your meal.”

Perceiving her matchmaking to be a bust, Mrs. Pan turned off the charm and voiced what was really on her mind. “How did you get both of your children to be doctors? Especially your firstborn, Xing. He was always so tiáopí as a child, always getting other kids, even my guāi Hanwei, to do the worst things, like watch the R movies or play those violent video games.”

To avoid acknowledging my brother’s existence, my mother covered her face with a menu and declared she was so hungry she could die—a common Chinese saying. Mrs. Pan hovered a minute, hoping to break through my mother’s defenses, but the situation was too awkward for even her to bear.

As Mrs. Pan left, my mother leaned over and whispered, “Hanwei isn’t good enough for you, Mei. He went to Northeastern! And I heard from Mrs. Ahn who heard from Mrs. Tian—Remember Mrs. Tian? Her son went to Princeton—that after Hanwei graduated, he threw his college degree away to pursue music.”

I wondered how he had pulled that off. How did he get his way when his mother dreamed of Dr. Hanwei Pan saving the world, a surgeon despite his nubbin bladder?

“I bet you Hanwei’s nose is tiny — a peanut,” my mother continued. “He’s now begging for money in exchange for guitar lessons.”

“You mean he’s teaching music? Like many other normal people?”

“Not normal. Last resort. Soon he’ll be just like Ying-Na.”

Poor Ying-Na. The Taiwanese-American cautionary tale of a girl who chose happiness over honoring her parents and was cut off financially and emotionally. Now she was the pìgu of every rumor, all created to support other parents’ warnings. Ying-Na decided to major in English and now lives in a refrigerator box. Ying-Na had an American boyfriend and he stole all her money. Ying-Na had one sip of alcohol and flunked out of college. And for my mother, Ying-Na veered off her parents’ career track and now takes off her clothes for quarters.

“I’m so glad you will be a doc-tor,” my mother continued, her pride overemphasizing each syllable. “Doctors always have a job. Never have to worry. So stable, so secure. And so respectable. That’s why we’re so happy to pay your tuition.”

I ducked my head in fear of her seeing the truth in my eyes— that bacteria-ridden patients made my skin crawl and biology put me to . . . zzzz. But unless I wanted to be Ying-Na 2.0, I didn’t have a choice.

The waiter set down three Wet-Naps, which my mother immediately swept into her purse. Then our drinks: soy milk for my mother and a plum smoothie for my father, who was still out looking for elusive street parking.

As the waiter handed me my papaya smoothie, my mother poked my breast. “These are still so small, like mosquito bites.”

Due to rumors of a papaya-eating aboriginal village in China that churned out big-breasted women, my mother had been forcing mushy pink fruit down my throat since I hit puberty. Spoiler: It didn’t work.

My B-cup breasts were too small for my “no-ugly-women” mother and the rest of my size-eight frame too big. She wished I was a classic Chinese beauty who would “fall over when the wind blows,” but I had missed the “skinny” gene on her side and instead inherited from my dad, whose college nickname was Lu Pàng, or Fat Lu. I preferred not to look like a chopstick with two cantaloupes for breasts, but I was in the minority.

As if on cue, my mother’s inspection traveled to my waist, which she pinched. “You’re getting fat. Have you been exercising?” It had to be a trap. If I admitted how much time I’d spent sneaking away to dance classes, she’d scold me for (1) not studying enough and (2) “throwing away” good money. I pressed my lips into a hard line, choosing silence. It’s because she loves you, I reminded myself. Right before they disowned my brother, they had stopped criticizing his negative attitude, his laziness, his weight. . . . It had been the last step before cutting him out. Reprimands meant they still cared . . . right?

“You need to be careful, Mei. No man wants a panda—lazy, round, and silly. All yuán gǔn gǔn.”

“Pandas are cute.”

It’s because she loves you, I reminded myself. Right before they disowned my brother, they had stopped criticizing his negative attitude, his laziness, his weight. . . . It had been the last step before cutting him out. Reprimands meant they still cared . . . right?

“Do you think the concubines won the emperor’s attention by being cute? Be a cat. They know how to sājiāo and get the man’s attention. They’re nián rén without being clingy—the perfect rice. Not too sticky, not too independent.”

“Apt example, Mǎmá. People declaw cats, essentially cutting off their ‘fingers,’ and our ancestors used to break women’s feet to bind them into three-inch monstrosities. Except that was to keep them from running away.” I just couldn’t help it.

She slapped the air with her open palm. “So disrespectful! How will you ever get a man?” She cleared her throat. “Actually, I have this friend—remember Mrs. Huang? Her son is interested in meeting you. Eugene is Taiwanese, a senior at Harvard, and will be a good husband. He’s applying to medical schools now.” She began pawing at my blunt bangs as if she were Edward Scissorhands. “We’ll have to clean up this mess before you meet him. Really, Mei, why you insist on having these? Just to give me a heart attack?”

I had gotten bangs to hide the off-center mole on my forehead. The one that was so close to smack-dab-in-the-middle that my mother’s Buddhist friends were always commenting on how I had just missed out on it being in the center. Too bad, so unlucky, because that would have made it less embarrassing. After the hundredth friend had touched the mole without permission, leaving it sticky and violated, I had taken matters (and the scissors) into my own hands. And I haven’t looked back, not even when my mother said, Why you want the hairstyle of Japanese schoolchildren?

I batted her hand away, then scooted my chair farther for good measure. “Yeah, Mǎmá, I can’t wait to meet this guy who needs his mom to get a girlfriend.”

“Wonderful! We’ll set up a date for next week!” Sarcasm didn’t translate.

“I was joking, Mǎmá.”

She accompanied her signature tongue cluck with her signature phrase. “I’m your mǔqīn,” she declared, using the formal, distant version of “mother” that implied authority.

This was becoming a pain in my pìgu. I tried to shut it down. “According to you, no boys were allowed in high school. And I’m only seventeen; I should be a high school senior.”

“But you’re not. College is the best time to find a husband. American girls peak in junior high, high school with looks, but you will peak now. You hated that you got your period so much later than the other girls”—I covered my face to hide from any patrons who might have overheard—“but like I told you then, it’s a good thing. All my older friends with mean-o-pause—they look okay one day, then wrinkly the next. Like those suānméi your bǎbá loves.” She shuddered, probably from picturing faces on my dad’s prunes like I was. Then she straightened her spine. “I still have my period,” she said in a tone that others would reserve for I just got a promotion. “And you’ll have yours many, many years after your peers sag. It’s genetics.”

Well, we rough-roaded it, but we managed to turn off course, away from preapproved Ivy League husbands. I just wish it didn’t have to involve my period. Or hers.

“Wait, what was I saying?” Guess I spoke too soon. “Oh right. Mei, take advantage of your youth while you can. And I chose Eugene precisely because you’re still so young. He is a good boy. Won’t try anything. Other boys will try to trick you into having the sex, and you’re too young to know how to handle that. As your mǔqīn, I’m going to tell you the truth. It doesn’t feel good for women. It’s only to make babies, which you are not ready for quite yet. But soon. With Eugene.”

Since I was about to toss my fortune cookies, I played my trump card. “Maybe we’ll see what Bǎbá has to say about this when he gets here.”

Her mouth snapped shut, knowing my father, who still saw me as a five-year-old, would fly into a chopstick-throwing rage at the thought of me dating. She excused herself to the bathroom, most likely to touch up her makeup. Clarification: to powder and reapply mascara; her eyeliner and lipstick were tattooed on.

My ears perked up at the sound of English amid the sea of Mandarin. Across the restaurant, a group of students was leaving their table.

A familiar face. Well, a familiar outline of hair—he was still too far away to be more than a blurry shape. Because of my nearsightedness and my mother’s tenet that “no woman is attractive in glasses,” I recognized people by silhouette and motion. At orientation, his head had bobbed above the sea of freshmen, and I had been attracted to his spiky anime hair. It had taken me half an hour to work up the courage to smile at him, but he’d been too busy laughing with the perky blonde beside him to notice shy, not-blond me. My heart had lurched, and then I had traveled back in time to first grade. Wooden desk. Chalkboard overhead. And six-year-old me looking from one classmate to another, wishing I didn’t look so different.

Oh God, I was totally staring. Probably because I could see him clearer now that he was only a few yards away, and, well, I’m just happy I didn’t drool. His face was all sharp angles and smooth skin, and he was that kind of lean muscular build—you know, nerd hot. Exactly my kind of poison.

At orientation, his head had bobbed above the sea of freshmen, and I had been attracted to his spiky anime hair. It had taken me half an hour to work up the courage to smile at him, but he’d been too busy laughing with the perky blonde beside him to notice shy, not-blond me. My heart had lurched, and then I had traveled back in time to first grade.

His eyes caught mine, then shifted down to my MIT shirt. While I was deer-in-headlights frozen at having been caught gawking, he said something to his friends (never had I wanted superhearing so bad), then weaved between chairs to my corner (!!!). I popped a hip-level wave, then regretted it immediately.

He slid into the seat across from me, his knees bumping the table. “You look familiar. Did we meet at orientation?”

“No, but I’m Mei.” I stuck a sweaty palm out.

He took it and didn’t say ew. “Darren. Nice to meet you. Are you a fan of Chow Chow? I’ve never had Taiwanese food before.”

“Did you like it?”

When his head bobbed up and down emphatically, I smiled, excited to have one more person in on the secret. There weren’t enough Taiwanese restaurants on this side of the world, and braised pork rice and oyster pancakes were much too delicious to be so scarce.

“It was amazing”—the right side of his lip quirked up—“although that stinky tofu smell does take some getting used to. Sorry if you’re a fan.”

I shook my head. “Never tried it. I’ve already gotten enough of a taste through my nose. You know, smelling is a large part of tasting, so in a way, we’ve all ‘tasted’ dog poop and garbage.” What a charmer. Maybe Hanwei was my soul mate after all.

But Darren wasn’t ruffled by my unladylike words. “Well, stinky tofu isn’t that far off, but I’m way more likely to try that than poop. In fact, I’m kind of curious about it—like, I want to try it because it smells so bad but it’s still food. Funny how that works, you know?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never been tempted? Not even one bite?”

“Ehhh, I’m good. I learned early not to trust my parents’ food preferences. Because of them, child-me thought stinky tofu was normal and Chili’s was the culinary master that invented fettuccine Alfredo.” I’d never admitted this to anyone before—it was too embarrassing—but instead of pity or judgment, there was . . . something else . . . on his face. Empathy? Dare I say, interest?

“You must’ve been a cute little kid,” he said. I expected him to be embarrassed by his words, but he was leaning back in his chair, a small smile on his lips, completely comfortable.

I wished I could be that self-assured, but since I was just me—not comfortable and completely awkward—I continued rambling. “Not according to my mother. I always talked with my mouth full, spoke when I shouldn’t, and said rude things.” I wondered if stinky tofu would taste better than my foot tasted right about now.

“You must’ve been a cute little kid,” he said. I expected him to be embarrassed by his words, but he was leaning back in his chair, a small smile on his lips, completely comfortable.

He shrugged. “Honesty is sometimes misconstrued as rudeness, which is probably why it’s so rare.” Suddenly he snapped, then pointed a finger at me. “That’s where I know you from! You were the one who came to that girl’s defense at orientation.”

Aiyah. How much had he heard? Even though I knew exactlywhich girl he was talking about, I furrowed my eyebrows at him as if I didn’t. Like I saved people daily.

“When the international student didn’t get that joke,” he clarified. “How MIT is like sex without a condom; you’re glad you got in but—”

“—sorry you came,” we said in unison.

Darren finished recounting, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

After I had chastised everyone for laughing at her—which had been a spur-of-the-moment decision fueled by my own experiences as the pìgu of the joke—I had told the girl, in an attempt to make her feel less alone, about that time in elementary school when I had brought my stuffed goat, Horny, to show-and-tell.

Darren leaned closer as he said, “I thought it was really nice of you to stand up for her.”

“Thanks.” I brought my eyes up to meet his and tried not to be too obvious about sneaking a deeper whiff of his scent. It was fresh, like spring, with a sprinkling of that distinct guy smell (the good kind).

He ticked his chin up at the plum smoothie and soy milk beside me. “Meeting some friends?”

“Sort of.” I coughed into my fist. I couldn’t lie now after his comment about honesty. I coughed again. “My parents.” I shrugged, like I was so cool I was totally down hanging with them.

“Are they still in town from moving you in?”

I shook my head. “They live close by, in the suburbs.”

“I wish my parents were closer. They’re in Southern California. Orange County.”

Instead of trying to make sense of the confusing mix of envy and sympathy fomented by his words, I simply nodded.

My mother exited the bathroom, her makeup the same as before, as far as I could tell. Ten rapid steps brought her to the table, and she stuck a hand out with a polite, “Hello, I’m Mrs. Lu.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Darren.”

“Darren . . . ?” She waved her hand in a circle.

“Takahashi.”

Her lips pursed to the side, then returned to a demure smile as she stepped to the left to clear him an exit path. “Nice to meet you. Have a great day.”

If he was bothered by the send-off, he didn’t let it show. I, for the record, was very much bothered but also knew it could have been worse. My mother not asking for his SAT scores or views on divorce was an improvement over her past record.

“Mei, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope I see you around campus.” He winked, making me freeze.

I managed another hip-level wave before he was out of sight.

My mother folded herself into the seat and placed her hands on the table, one over the other. My radar pinged—I was going to hate the next ten minutes.

“He’s Japanese, Mei.” “And?”

“They murdered our family. Orphaned my mother.” Her voice caught as it always did whenever she spoke of the war.

He didn’t kill them. Please, don’t make a thing of this. He saw my MIT shirt and came over to introduce himself. He probably won’t remember me in a week.” I hoped that last part was a lie.

My mother raised an eyebrow. “I saw how he was looking at you. You know the rules. No Japanese boys.”

Or white, black, or Hispanic. Only Taiwanese, and a doctor to boot. I had been so excited about finally being allowed to date that I had overlooked the restrictions. Until now.

My mother raised an eyebrow. “I saw how he was looking at you. You know the rules. No Japanese boys.”

“I already found your husband, Mei. Eugene Huang. Dr. Eugene Huang. Búyào tuō kùzi fàngpì”—that is, Don’t take your pants off to fart, the Chinese idiom my family used for, Don’t waste your time doing something extraneous. In this case, dating.

“Oh my God, Mǎmá.” I dropped my head in my hands, the flush from my cheeks warming my palms.

My mother fetched the dreaded comb from her purse. It looked like a normal, innocent comb, but I knew it was made from a dead cow’s foot. “Do you have a headache? Come here. Let me guā yi guā your neck.”

The cuteness of the Chinese phrase is deceiving—it means to scrape away, as in skin and blood, not toxins as the ancient healers once believed (and my mother still believes). I shuddered thinking about her sanding my neck until it looked like I had measles.

I did, in fact, have a bit of a headache, as any seventeen-year-old would upon hearing that her mother had already picked out her future husband. But I wasn’t letting that bacteria-covered hoof near me.

I knew from experience not to fight this one with logic, which only instigated tongue clicks and guilt, my mother’s number one weapon. You dishonor your ancestors. Our medicine has been around longer. How can you, a future doctor, not understand that the practice of guāshā lets out bad energy?

Instead, I pasted a smile on my face and lied. “I feel great. Don’t bother with the cow’s hoof. Búyào tuō kùzi fàngpì, right?”

My mother smiled and the tension waned. Nothing like using her own wisdom to lighten the mood. Sometimes I just had to whip out my Mandarin. I pulled another trick out of my xiùzi. “I saw on Facebook that Amberly Ahn has a new boyfriend.”

My mother bit the hook. Gossiping was harder for her to turn down than a soup dumpling is for me. “Ah, thank goodness.”

As she chatted on and on about all the horrible things Amberly and her mother have done—Mrs. Ahn betrayed me, wanting Eugene for Amberly. Hunh! As if Mrs. Huang would want Amberly’s tiny hips instead of your child-bearing form—I felt a (very odd) sense of security wrap around me, a blanket of comfort. Even though some—okay, most—of the things she was saying were gross, even though I didn’t really want to meet Eugene, there was some kind of twisted pride in there.

And Chow Chow was my second home, my Taiwanese home away from my Taiwanese home. I knew its calligraphy wallpaper and ceiling lanterns as well as the plastic wrap covering my parents’ furniture.

My father strolled in and sat sans words. Upon his arrival, the waiter brought over our favorite appetizer: “open-mouth” dumplings with steam pouring out the sides. Fitting, since I was sitting with my mouth open and some drool spilling out. My mother clucked her tongue at me and my jaw snapped shut.

As I was about to dig in, my father cleared his throat—a thundering noise that always made me sit up straight and lower my eyes. “Mei, a few words.” He paused for effect. “MIT is your first step to a good life. Work hard, get good grades, get into a good medical school, and make us proud. Don’t worry, we will be watching every step of the way. We will see you here, at Chow Chow, every Saturday, to check in.” A decree, not a request.

My mother gave me the eyeball, and I knew she was telecommunicating, You also need to marry Dr. Eugene Huang and pump out a litter of Taiwanese babies.

I wanted to enjoy my newfound freedom and cut the umbilical cord, but with these words I realized it would never be severed, only stretched.

When my parents raised their soy milk and plum smoothie in the air, I needed a moment before I could lift my pink mush in return.

American Panda by Gloria Chao, $15.29, Amazon