A Very American Story

Gloria Chao tackles the tensions growing up between immigrants and their first-generation children in a new YA novel

Gloria Chao and the cover of her new novel American Panda

Gloria Chao, D12, grew up outside Boston, the daughter of tradition-minded Taiwanese immigrants—much like Mei Lu, the protagonist of Chao’s recently published young adult novel, American Panda. And much like the parents in her book, Chao’s parents steered her toward math and science and a career in the health professions.

“I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be a writer,” Chao said. 

And yet, when she found herself at a pause in her dental career, becoming a writer is exactly what she did. As a dental student at Tufts, she had taken to reading young adult—or YA, as they are called—novels as a stress-reliever. She even completed a rough manuscript of a novel of her own. Some years later, while waiting for her license to transfer to another state after a move, her husband encouraged her to return to her story—about a twenty-something Chinese-American woman who bucks her parents’ expectations.

After several iterations—most notably, making her character a seventeen-year-old college freshman—and refining the book for the YA market, American Panda was born. “I first tried to sell it as women’s fiction, but this is a coming-of-age story,” Chao said. “It really is a young adult story in terms of voice and theme.”

In the book, published by Simon and Shuster’s Simon Pulse imprint, Mei is a first-year student at MIT living under the shadow of her parents and extended family. Mei is expected to become a doctor, but she suspects that it is not the right choice for her, as several scenes in the book bear out—including one set in Tufts’ old gross anatomy lab in the basement of 136 Harrison Avenue, where both medical and dental students trained for generations.

Chao acknowledges the obvious similarities between her and Mei. “I grew up in the Boston suburbs, just like my character, and I did see my parents every weekend in college and dental school, just like she does,” Chao said. She also was an undergraduate at MIT. Yet the characters are, she stressed, fictional. “By the time the book was published, they had become a conglomeration of many people I know,” she said. “I took the most interesting stories and wove them into the best narrative I could.”

What about Mei’s mother, who is arguably the most memorable character in the book? “Her personality is a mix of a lot of moms that I knew growing up,” Chao said. “She says a lot of things that my mom says, but if you know my mom, you can tell that the mother in the book is just a character.”

But, “writing the parents’ point of view in the book made me ask my mom a lot of questions I was too scared to ask before,” Chao said. “It made me break out of my comfort zone, and we got to know each other a lot better. Some of our conversations even made their way word for word into the book. We became very good friends, and when the book came out, she thanked me for telling her story,” Chao said. “She has been giving it to all of her friends, saying, ‘You need to read this book to understand your kids.’”

At first, though, Chao’s parents had to come to terms with her switch from full-time dentistry to full-time writing. “My parents obviously had a hard time with that,” Chao said. “I realized they were coming from a place of love, and they wanted to make sure I was making the right choice.”

That struggle, Chao said, is common to many immigrant families—the parents’ desire to have their children become materially secure and successful, and the American-raised children’s desire to express their individuality. It’s a theme that, until about a decade ago, wasn’t tackled much in young adult or children’s literature, Chao said. Among the YA authors she cites as influences are Nicola Yoon, Adam Silvera, Jason Reynolds, and Marie Lu; readers of contemporary adult fiction may recognize echoes of writers such as Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Chao’s next book is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2019. It’s titled Misaligned. And no, she said, it’s not about teeth.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.    

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