Gloria Chao’s path to becoming a writer was pretty unique — she graduated from MIT in 2008, became a dentist, then completely shifted gears to become a novelist. That kind of career change would be a bold move for anyone, but as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrant parents, Chao says it took extra courage. Leaving dentistry for an uncharted path as a writer seemed like a gamble after her parents worked so hard to ensure she had a successful life in America. Now based in Chicago, Lu has already found success with one YA novel out and another on the way from Simon & Schuster.
Her semi-autobiographical debut novel, American Panda, is about seventeen-year-old MIT student Mei Lu — a pre-med germophobe who would prefer a career in dance, but feels enormously pressured by her Taiwanese immigrant parents to become — and marry — a doctor. It’s a hilarious and heartwarming coming-of-age story about one girl’s search for identity and the courage to forge her own path.
I recently chatted with Chao about American Panda, identity, and Chicago (where her next novel is set).
Where did you get the idea for American Panda?
American Panda is largely inspired by my life, and I began writing this book when I switched careers from dentist to writer. During that time, I had difficulty communicating with my parents, and I channeled a lot of that struggle into the narrative. With American Panda, I wanted to write the book I needed then and also the book I needed as a teen. I wanted to show readers that they aren’t alone, that it’s okay to not feel wholly one thing or another, and that cultural gaps can be difficult. I wanted to capture a window into another world, but also write a character that was universal in her search for herself.
American Panda is about the struggle for identity and belonging, and you dedicate the novel to anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. As a Taiwanese-American did you face these same struggles?
Yes, I have struggled with identity my whole life. I never felt quite Taiwanese or American enough. Growing up, it was almost as if there were two versions of me: one that spoke Mandarin at home and obeyed my parents, and the one at school that tried (and failed) to fit in. I want teens to know that it’s okay if they don’t fully know where they belong. For me, figuring that out was learning to love myself even though I don’t fit neatly into a box.
All of the characters are very vivid and feel real, but Mei’s mother is especially memorable. How did you come up with this character?
Mei’s mother says many of the things my mother says (like, ‘swing your arms 3,000 times a day for good health’ and ‘papaya makes your boobs grow’), and her personality is based on many people from my life. She came to me fully formed and basically began bossing me around and telling me what she wanted to say. She was my favorite character to write!
In the novel, Mei struggles with whether to conform to her parents’ wishes and the path they have carved out for her or to follow her own dreams. Is that a universal theme in YA or something you wanted to explore?
I think coming of age is a universal YA theme, but with Mei’s story, I wanted to explore this in a way that is, unfortunately, less common in YA. I wanted to capture the difficulty of wanting a different life than what your immigrant parents want, and the extreme guilt that comes with it. Further, I wanted to capture both sides of the story and show how, at the core, Mei’s parents just love her and want the best for her, which is why the situation is so difficult. As Mei says in the book, there’s no right or wrong, no morality; the difficulty lies in simply seeing the world differently, which is an incredibly hard obstacle to overcome.
You’re based in Chicago. How has the city shaped your writing life?
Chicago plays a loving role in my next book, Misaligned, which mainly takes place in Indiana, but has some fun scenes in the Windy City.
I am so lucky to have a view of Lake Michigan from my desk, and living in a city dedicated to culture and art is inspiring. We’re also lucky to be home to many wonderful indie bookstores—57th Street Books, Anderson’s Bookshop, Women & Children First, The Book Cellar, and The Book Stall—just to name a few. I have made so many wonderful writer connections here. Chicago is a fabulous place to be a writer!
Your second novel will be out next year. Can you tell us a little about book two?
I’d love to! Misaligned will be out fall 2019 with Simon Pulse. The book follows a teen outcast, Ali, who is the only Asian in her small, predominantly white Midwestern town. The book explores racism and prejudice, and when another Asian family moves to town, everyone believes Ali and the other Chinese boy belong together. Despite her initial resistance, she begins falling for him—the one who understands her in a way no one else can—only to learn that her mother forbids them from being together. As Ali searches for the reasoning behind her mother’s disapproval, she unearths dark family secrets that threaten her future.
This book was actually inspired by the big reveal at the end of the book, which is based on a real phenomenon in China!
American Panda by Gloria Chao
Published February 6, 2018
Gloria Chao is an MIT graduate turned dentist turned writer who currently lives in Chicago. Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at GloriaChao.Wordpress.com.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Writers Review, Nurture, Entropy, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, (mac)ro(mic), Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.