The Loss of Identity

Rafael Jacobo

In Ken Liu’s short story, “Paper Menagerie,” is a poignant short story that explores the theme of identity, culture, and self-acceptance through the eyes of Jack. Jack is a son of a Chinese Mother and a white father. Jack struggles to reconcile his mix heritages and fells like an outsider due to his mother’s Chinese background. Throughout his journey from childhood to adulthood, Jack grapples with the psychological repression of his Chinese background, as he navigates the complexities of identity and belonging. Erik Erikson’s theory suggests that individuals will go through a series of eight stages of psychological development throughout their lives, which each stage having a unique problem that must be resolved (McConnell page 240). These stages build on each other, with success or failure, with each stage influencing the individuals overall developmental growth. Therefore, “Paper Menagerie” explores the challenges of identity and belonging that arise from cultural differences and uses Eric Erikson’s Psychological development theory to highlight the impact of an individual’s overall development.

The first two steps in Erikson’s theory, trust versus mistrust and autonomy versus doubt, are particularly relevant to Jack’s infant to young child stages of growing. For Jack, he in entirely dependent on his parents for his early needs, and depending on how they may respond to him will shape his sense of trust and mistrust. Through Jacks mother, he can create this “oral trust” (McConnell 241) where she can become the main source of sharing her Chinese background and creating trust with a young Jack. When she folds paper animals for Jack, he fells a sense of joy, but neighborhood child ridicules him for these origami figures. The statement, “That doesn’t look like a tiger at all. Your mom makes toys for you from trash?” (Liu 2012) would be the start of Jacks rejection of his Chinese heritage, and he begins to feel shame and doubt of his cultural identity. According to Erikson, shame is when an individual “…would like to force the world not to look at him, not notice his exposure. He would like to destroy the eyes of the world. Instead, he must wish for his own invisibility (McConnell 243). This idea of mistrust and doubt is built upon as Jack’s father struggles to understand and appreciate Jack’s Chinese background. As Jacks begins to assert his independence in understanding his culture, his father’s dismissiveness towards his Chinese heritages contributes to his feelings of shame and doubt.

However, one thing that contributes to Jacks doubt and mistrust of his Chinese culture would be the Repeal of the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882. This act was passed by the United States and prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States and remain in effect for 40 years until 1940, when it was repealed (Lee page 36, 55) This law implemented in the United States would affect many immigrants arriving legally and illegally. This Act would officially end lead to immigrants being issued “green cards” (Lee 55) to obtain residence in the United States. This law lingering effects would have many Chinese people, and other Immigrants to express their heritage, so this would explain Jack’s resistance to explore his Chinese background. Yet the society that he lives in discriminates against Chinese immigrants. This would explain why the two neighbors exclaimed, “Something about the mixing never seems right. The child looks unfinished. Slanty eyes, white face. Little monster” (Liu). Undoubtedly, this interaction would also add to Jack’s doubts and mistrust of this mother’s culture.

Secondly the next two stages Erikson’s theory take place, initiative versus guilt and Industry versus inferiority. In the initiative versus guilt stage, the child takes time to explore their interests and develop a sense of responsibility to learn and follow rules (McConnell 242). Jack displays this stage by distancing himself from his mother and accepting his father’s American culture (Liu). Jack’s curiosity to explore his Chinese background was ignored by his father, who made no effort to encourage him to connect with his mother. Instead, Jack mentions that “Mom learned to cook American style. I played video games and studied French” (Liu). Moreover, this rejection causes Jack to feel guilty about his desire embrace his Chinese identity. Additionally, Jack expresses how he feels inferior to others at his school. He mentions that the students in his class call him “chink face” (Liu), and how that makes him struggle to fit in. These interactions have a significant impact on his self-confidence and is ability to establish his identity in the later stages of development.

Thirdly Erikson, the identity versus role confusion and intimacy versus isolation stages have the greatest impact on an individual’s development (McConnell 243-244). During these stages, individuals are no longer children and begin their journey to young adulthood. For Jack, these stages are particularly challenging as he continues to grapple with his dual identity as a Chinese American. As he enters high school, he pushes his mother aside and separates himself farther from his Chinese heritage. His development under these conditions maks a session where he develops his role in the world and leads to confusion and a sense of isolation. Hence why he conveys “…it was hard for me to believe that she gave birth to me. We had nothing in common. She might as we be from the moon. I should hurry on to my room, where I could continue my all-American pursuit of happiness” (Liu). Just as important, the intimacy versus isolation stage is where individuals are faced with the tasks of forming deep meaning connections with others (McConnell 244). For Jack, it’s his last opportunity to make a meaning full connection to his mother as she lies on her dead bed. In this confrontation, Jack is forced to confront the realities of her mortality and grapple with way he managed their relationship. Only until his mother passes away, does he comes to realize the significance of the paper figures and his mother’s heritage.

Furthermore, research by David Lee and Stephen Quintana suggests that transracial children adopt the cultural practices and values that benefit them the most in their environment (Lee and Quintana 132). Forming an individual’s identity becomes more complex as teenagers view their racial identity through social dimensions. The racism and discrimination these children experience mold their perception onto themselves (Lee and Quintana 132). Through Lee and Quintana’s research, they found that twenty percent of white families who adopted transracial children often had negative racial experiences and wished they had a different racial status. Among these adopted children, only a select few would investigate their racial origins and express their culture to others. On the other hand, if racially diverse parents adopted the children, they would have an easier time exploring their cultural background (Lee and Quintana 137). These slight changes in parents would open the doors for deepening relationships and guide many of these children towards their selective role in life.

Then again, when exploring Erikson’s final two stages, generativity versus stagnation and ego integrity versus despair, individuals are finding the reason to complete intimacy with a partner and focusing on finding a sense of purpose. The generativity versus stagnation stage for Jack occurs when he finally moved in with this wife, as he reconciles the times his mother would share her ability to bring life to her origami. The use of “I saw, in my mind, mom’s hands, as they folded and refolded tin foil to make a chart for me while Lihou and I watched” (Liu) allows Jack to recall the delicate moments that shaped him to the way is. During this point, Jack’s maturity stagnates due to the overwhelming feelings, and his generative fails to develop. Thus, his wife Susan aids in the transition from a teenager’s mind to adulthood. Her actions, putting Jack’s mothers’ origami around their apartment, aided in Jack achieving adulthood because it allowed him to understand the significance of studying his culture. His ego gets broken when he unfolds the origami and finds out there is a letter from his late mother, which he cannot read (Liu). Rather than avoid his mother, he tries to embrace her culture by having someone translate the Mandarin that he could not read. As a result, the final letter completes his development because he understands that “… one’s life is one’s responsibility alone” (McConnell 245) and understands that his mother was offering her love even when he did not want it. This is why Jack asked the translator to find the word “ai,” which means love, though out his mother’s letter, so he can continue to reflect on his life’s choses. This is why he “…refolded the paper back into Laohu” and, “… cradled him in the crook of my arm, and as her purred, we began the walk home” (Liu). Jack’s struggle with ego integrity reflects on the broader social issues he experienced though his lifetime. His development is a reflection of trials and tribulations that he faced while navigating these stages.

In conclusion, Ken Liu’s short story “Paper menagerie” provides a power exploration of identity and belonging though the psychological lens of Erik Erikson’s theory of Psychological Development. Traces of this theory are found in the protagonist’s journey from his childhood and into his late adulthood. This short story highlights the complex events that humans face when dealing with their individual identity and societal forces. Untimely, “Paper Menagerie” serves as a reminder on how individuals’ identities are molded, and how their cultural and social forces affect their purpose and meaning in life.

Works Cited

Lee, David C., and Stephen M. Quintana. “Benefits of Cultural Exposure and Development of Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 11, no. 2, May 2005, pp. 130–43. EBSCOhost, Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Lee, Erika. “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 21, no. 3, 2002, pp. 36–62.  JSTOR, Accessed 27 Apr. 2023.

Liu, Ken . “Paper Menagerie.” Gizmodo, 12 Nov. 2012, Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.

McConnell, Theodore A. “The Course to Adulthood.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 5, no. 3, 1966, pp. 239–51. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Apr.2023.


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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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