The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
In The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu we have the theme of resentment, connection, culture, identity, prejudice, acceptance, struggle and love. Narrated in the first person by a man called Jack the reader realises after reading the story that Liu may be exploring the theme of resentment. Jack though he has had a happy childhood longs to be like other American boys. Due to his heritage he knows that he sticks out and that people are prejudicial towards him simply because he has a Chinese mother. This may be significant as Liu may be attempting to highlight how racist America can be towards those who look different. Something which is very much the case for Jack when he is younger. He struggles in high school simply because he looks Chinese. It is also noticeable that the connection that Jack has with his mother when he was younger disappears when he rebels against her based solely on the fact of who she is. It is as though Jack is not proud of his mother. If anything life gets complicated for Jack as he grows older and tries to formulate his own identity. An identity in which he is displeased with due to his mother’s heritage.
Though some critics might suggest that Jack has very little to worry about. It might be important to remember that he is of an impressionable age when he stops talking to his mother. He is consciously making a decision not to embrace her culture. Though as a child her origami brought him so much happiness and any problem that Jack encountered with the origami was resolved by his mother. This close connection is lost when Jack enters his teen years and all he wants to do is fit in with other children. Something he finds hard to do because of the way he looks. If anything Jack feels as though his life is in a crisis. He knows that his mother was married to his father by way of a catalogue. She won’t speak English and she doesn’t appear to be able to adapt to American life very well. To compound matters Jack is refusing to side with his mother and take on board that she is from a different culture. Rather than embracing his mother’s culture Jack shuns it. Favouring instead to follow what he believes is an American culture. Both son and mother are separated from each other.
How hurtful this actually is to Jack’s mother is noticeable by the letter that she writes on Laohu. It describes in detail the type of life that Jack’s mother has lived and the difficulties that she has had to endure. Difficulties that Jack had no previous understanding of nor does it appear as though he wished to understand when his mother was alive. Something which would further play on the theme of connection. If anything Jack’s deliberate action of disconnecting from his mother has left him without any sense of who his mother really was. Which may leave some readers to suggest that Jack may have been selfish when he was younger. However it might be important to remember that Jack felt pressurized to be accepted when he was younger and if this meant excluding his mother then this was something that Jack was prepared to do. Jack’s father’s role in the story is also interesting as by buying him toys rather than allowing him to continue playing with his collection of origami. Jack’s father in many ways has assimilated Jack into an American way of life. Something that suits Jack though must have caused pain to his mother.
The end of the story is also interesting as Jack appears to see the error in his ways. Something that is noticeable by his continual insertion of the word ‘ai’ (love) into his mother’s letter. It is as though Jack realises that his mother had to accept the struggles she faced in life. Struggles that Jack himself has never had to face. If anything Jack feels connected to his mother for the first time since he was a teenager and understands the hardships she had to go through. Though Jack shunned his mother’s love. She never stopped loving him. There is also a sense that Jack finally accepts who he is. That he is no longer ashamed of his identity and that he is proud of his mother. By reading his mother’s letter Jack is able to understand just how difficult life was for his mother and perhaps he can see how petty he himself may have been when he began to exclude his mother from his life. In order to fit in with others Jack had forgotten about his culture and if anything he was embarrassed by his mother. Something the reader suspects is no longer the case after Jack reads the letter.