Race and Culture in “The Paper Menagerie”

Published: 2021-06-29 02:10:12
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Category: Culture

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Race and culture are two important elements that define who people are. In “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu, the author expresses the conflicts between Jack and his mother during his teenage years. Jack is biracial, half Chinese and half white, and was raised with a background of Chinese culture. However, when he became a teenager, he began to refuse his cultural background in order to become more Americanized like his friends.
He struggles to accept his mother’s heritage as his own and leans towards his father’s. “The Paper Menagerie” should be a part of the syllabus in Professor Breunig’s classroom next year because race and culture are important factors in shaping our personalities.Culture defines who we are and where we are from. Nevertheless, it can be hard to keep one’s culture and honor one’s family traditions in the US because we are living in a “melting pot”, which means there are many cultures in the US. When people start involving more to society, they want to be more likely American.
This can be painful to parents, grandparents, those who get left behind and it’s confusing for young people who are raised in both their family’s culture and that of their friends, which is US pop culture to figure out who they are, what they owe. The short story begins with a scene where Jack is shown to be angry with his parents. In order to try to appease him, his mom makes an origami tiger, which is a tradition in her culture and always used to make him smile. However, now her attempts to make him happy did not work. Jack’s mom is a mail bride and does not speak English very well, so Jack rejects her and states, “I look nothing like her, nothing” (Liu). When he is old enough to know about his background, he does not want to accept himself.
As he gets older, he treats his mother distantly. He does not have a room in his heart for her. By portraying Jack rejecting his culture and trying to fully be a part of another, Liu is successful in giving a lesson of how people desire acceptance from the others even if they have to reject the ones who care about them, which can make one face a loss of love and self-identity.We should all learn to accept who we are and live a life without regret, which is something Fairfield University, as a Catholic community, stands for. Liu uses his work to send a message to the readers to live without regret. “You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It’s for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone” (Liu).
Jack’s mother desires to take care of her parents, but they passed away a long time ago. Because of this, she fears of losing her relationship with Jack because he is the only one who can carry on her family’s culture and she sees her ancestor in Jack. However, Jack rejects his mother’s attempts and ostracizes her at a young age because she is not like his friends’ mothers. This can be shocking and hurtful to the readers. He doesn’t realize how important his mother is until she passes away too. Jack lives with full of regret after reading the letter his mother wrote for him before she passed.
This story has similar themes to other pieces we read during this semester, isolation and empathy. It can relate to “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson, “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov, or “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri. In “The Paper Menagerie,” Liu gives the readers several details that the readers can empathy to Jack’s mother. She grew up as an orphan and had to work for several families to get food, before becoming a mail-order bride from Chinese. She is isolated in her American house and cannot talk to her husband until Jack was born because of her language barrier.
It seems Jack’s mother has an unfortunate life, but are they all unlucky things she gets or she gets the worse thing in her life? Liu’s short story is the great example to show students that always remember where we are from and respect every moment in order not to regret when it’s gone.One of the purposes Liu writes “The Paper Menagerie” in order to emphasize that there is nothing that can affect the maternal love. Jack’s mother does everything for him. She loves him more than herself. She cares more about his emotions than how she feels. She endures in order to make Jack happier.
To her when Jack rejects to speak Chinese, she seems to lose everything again, “But can you understand how much joy your very existence brought to me? And can you understand how it felt when you stopped talking to me and won’t let me talk to you in Chinese? I felt I was losing everything again” (Liu). Even though Jack stops speaking Chinese hurts her a lot emotionally, she does not tell him. She starts speaking English and cooking American foods because he wants so. She loves him till her last breath, “Haizi, mama ai ni” which means Son, I love you.
She does not want him to worry about her when she passes away, “If I don’t make it don’t be too sad and hurt your health. Focus on your life. Just keep that box you have in the attic with you, and every year, at Quingming, just take it out and think about me. I’ll be with you always” (Liu). Even she thinks after passing away, she will always beside Jack and will support him, no matter how he rejects her before.“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu is a great short story for EN12 in Professor Breunig’s classroom. Liu’s story makes us empathize with what Jack’s mother has to endure which is the theme we spend time during this semester. The story might get the readers their emotions because of how sad it is. I highly recommend this short story to have on the syllabus next semester, if not you can enjoy it in your free time.

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