Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
“Paper Menagerie” is a short story about a bi-racial young man named Jack, who is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother immigrated to America. Jack’s mom creates (origami menagerie ) paper animals for him and breathes life into them and they became his friends. For a while, the mother and the son delighted in this magic together. But after an incident with a bully who insults Jack about his Chinese ancestry, the son Jack changes his mind. He doesn’t want to be half Chinese and half American anymore. He wants to be all American. He doesn’t want his eyes or his hair or his language or his little paper friends. He doesn’t even want his mother. Jack throws out the menagerie and rejects his mother, who becomes increasingly silent. As he grows older, Jack grows apart from his mother, until their connection becomes unpleasant and strained. But when Jack’s mother dies, he realises that she has been penning letters in his menagerie’s paper, and she has her own tale that she has been struggling to tell.
The Paper Menagerie is the story of a son getting estranged from his own mother simply because of the different culture she came from. It’s not that the mother didn’t love her son or that her way of loving him was strange – on the contrary, she’s a sweetheart. Which makes the story all the more sad and tragic.
Analysis of Paper Menagerie
This is a story about love and loss, about family and about acceptance. It touches on so many themes that are of great importance. The racism and prejudices made me extremely angry. And Jack’s mother is such a kind soul, you can’t help but love her. But unfortunately, Jack is not able to do so. It was all so very sad and tragic.
The Paper Menagerie is about how there is always something about us we want to run away from until we grow up and learn to love it–but by then it’s too late. Jack is cruel to his mother, forcing her to abandon her language and cuisine and zhezhi until she is just a shell of herself. And yet his mother still cares about him. She makes sure he stays healthy as he begins to lose himself in being American.
It is just so, so sad. The impact is astonishing. Every sentence carries weight. It’s quietly and intimately emotional and contains situations everyone can relate to in some way.
This short story is about being torn between Western and Eastern cultures and not knowing how to find a balance that you’re comfortable with. It’s about acceptance, love, and how we often push it away. Jack was born and raised in America, and he constantly feels pressured to pick one or the other culture. It seems very common to me for children to feel the overwhelming need to have to choose. It might make sense to us now that it’s possible to live in harmony with all parts of yourself without having to deny some, but I remember vividly wanting to pick and choose parts of myself as a child. I believe I wanted blond hair and blue eyes. I wasn’t able to appreciate my different heritages without having a very strong preference for one. And I would swing from one to another with startling quickness. I got whiplash. I was a confused child. Every multiracial person knows what I’m talking about.
Jack never tried to understand his mother. He only tried to push her away. And he succeeded.
The Paper Menagerie is the best short story I have ever read. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the random info-dumpy letter at the end that took me out of the story a bit. It was kind of melodramatic.