New Historical

Prejudice Versus Empathy

Aneesa loughmiller

In “The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu, Jack’s mother faces racial prejudice as a Chinese immigrant in America. Not only from the family’s neighbors in the new house they move into across town, but also from Jack. This experience isn’t unique, unfortunately, and can be seen as a reflection of how immigrants have historically been treated in the United States. However, when Jack reads her letter after her death, his opinions change, and he regrets how he treated his mother while she was still alive. When this story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2011, almost 1.1 million immigrants were entering America every year (Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2011). The growing number of immigrants led to conflicting attitudes toward immigration. On the one hand, prejudice continued, but on the other was a public desire to learn more about the people moving to the US. “The Paper Menageriereflects the tension of its time both the desire to empathize with the stories of immigrants and the prejudice that Asian American immigrants faced.

Jack’s negative attitude towards his mother’s ethnicity was likely the most hurtful, but it is only one of many instances where she is considered an outsider. The first notable time in the text comes when Jack and his family move into a new home, and the neighbors come over to welcome them.

“The neighbors conversed in the living room, not trying to be particularly quiet.

‘He seems like a normal enough man. Why did he do that?’

Something about the mixing never seems right. The child looks unfinished. Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster” (Liu Paper Menagerie).

The neighbors speak within hearing distance of both Jack and Jack’s mother because they know she doesn’t speak English. Jack does, and they eventually become embarrassed when they find that out, but it doesn’t change their opinions. Many people would refrain from saying mean things in front of the person being referred to, even if the other person spoke another language. These two women didn’t consider Jack’s mother to be worthy of that level of respect, though.

The most blatant example of Jack’s mother experiencing intolerance came at the hands of Jack and his father, though. After his schoolmate, Mark, tore up Laohu.

I brushed her hand away. ‘I’m fine. Speak English!’ I was shouting.

‘Speak English to him,’ Dad said to Mom. ‘You knew this was going to happen some day. What did you expect?” (Liu Paper Menagerie)

Jack’s mom had learned some English, but in her own home – with her family- she spoke Mandarin. Jack decided that he wanted to be like other families because “Other families don’t have moms who don’t belong (Lui Paper Menagerie). It seems that in Jack’s attempts to escape bullying, he alienated his mom, considering her Chinese heritage as ‘less than.’ But it wasn’t just Jack here. His dad seemed to have been expecting something like this to happen eventually, as seen by the way he belittles her for not planning for a day when her son would reject her culture and language. It’s not stated, but this interaction does imply that Jack’s dad also sees his wife’s Chinese heritage as something to be embarrassed about. That is why he was unsurprised by Jack’s request for American food instead of Chinese, and to speak English at home. To Jack’s dad, it was something he decided was acceptable for himself, but also something that Jack would likely grow out of enjoying.

This sort of prejudice was unfortunately common in the early 2010s. An example comes from 2013 when a law was enacted that barred Chinese nationals from entering NASA facilities to prevent espionage (Sample “US scientists boycott NASA conference over China ban”). There doesn’t seem to be evidence that there was a risk of espionage, only the fear of it happening.


Its unfortunate that Jack never learns to connect with his mother while she’s alive, because, as her letter says, “I had lost my entire family, all of Sigulu, everything I ever knew and loved. But there you were, and your face was proof that they were real. I hadn’t made them up” (Liu Paper Menagerie). Her new life in the US with her new husband was better than being a servant as she had been in China, but she was lonely. Especially because she didn’t speak English yet. When Jack was born, she no longer felt alone. Not only that, she felt like she had her family back.

By reading her letter, though, Jack sheds his compulsion to think of his mother as ‘less than’ because of her Chinese heritage. As Yu Hang says in “An Analysis of the Reconstruction of Chinese American Identity in The Paper Menagerie,” Listening and understanding is one of the most common ways of identity reconstruction” (Yu page 793). Jack’s hatred of his own Chinese identity led to his ill-treatment of his mother, but by listening to her story, he was able to humanize his mother’s experiences. No longer does he think poorly of her because of her heritage, and he commits to embracing his own Chinese heritage.

The moral of the “Paper Menagerie” is that listening and empathizing with people who are marginalized, like Asian American immigrants have historically been, leads to connection. Being able to connect and see people with different life experiences as equals is vital to ending the prejudice that immigrants face. Ken Liu, in an interview with Subtle Asian Book Club in 2022, said his goal in writing this story was to write “an empathetic story that makes sense; a story that is comprehensive; that reflects the totality of the human experience and the complexity of Asia’s recent history” [THE PAPER MENAGERIE live interview with Ken Liu 27:18-27:35]. This likely stems from the over-arching experience of discrimination against Asian immigrants, and this desire for their stories has only grown in recent years. New projects have started, like The Immigrant Story, founded in 2017, whose mission is, “To document, narrate and curate stories about immigrants in order to promote empathy and advance an inclusive community” ( This sentiment to promote empathy for immigrants seems to be more and more prevalent.

Even though more immigrant stories are being told, prejudice is still a problem faced, especially by Asian Americans. Since 2020, and the Covid-19 pandemic, Asian American hate crimes have been on the rise. It seems strange that there is also more and more interest in the personal stories of Asian immigrants, like Jack’s mother. Like in the story, however, when Jack’s prejudice against his mother’s Chinese heritage is broken by hearing her experiences, prejudice can be overcome with empathy. It follows then that in a time when there is more and more prejudice against Asian Americans, there would also be a rise in interest of their stories. Perhaps, like Jack’s prejudice being softened through empathy, this same transformation can happen in the United States as more immigrant stories are told.

Works Cited

“Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2011.” Yearbook 2011 | Homeland Security,

THE PAPER MENAGERIE Live Interview with Ken Liu. YouTube, YouTube, 11 Sept. 2022, Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.

“The Immigrant Story.” The Immigrant Story, 7 June 2022,

Liu, Ken. “The Paper Menagerie.” THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, 2011, pp. 64–76.

Sample, Ian. “US Scientists Boycott NASA Conference over China Ban.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2013,

YU, Hang. “An Analysis of the Reconstruction of Chinese American Identity in the Paper Menagerie.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies, vol. 10, no. 9, 2020,


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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