Reader Response

One Heart and Two Identities

Maria Zavala

The short story “Paper Menagerie” is a heart-wrenching yet eye-opening insight into the lives of children who are born in one place but must grow up in two different cultures. This story not only makes us revisit our childhood and reminisce on how we grew up in our homes, but it also shines a light on the struggles of growing up and facing the pressure from others to adhere to the social critique of “you’re in America now act American.” Ken Liu’s amazing story illuminates the struggles that many individuals go through with having to struggle to be American enough for the Americans and still be proud of our different cultural backgrounds. Growing up with one heart and two identities many endure racism, resentment, identity conflict, and most importantly self-discovery of love.

The mother in Paper Menagerie keeps her son from crying by creating animals from gift wrap paper which this art is called origami. These animals were very special for they would come to life with the mother’s breath and keep her son content. The animals would move around and play, and they moved with the life of the mother. The mother would make all the animals he wanted, and just like Jack who spent his days playing with his animals, I spent my days learning how to make flowers out of Kleenex. These items were crafted with such love and rich history. The paper animals all throughout this story are a tie for Jack and his Chinese heritage and ancestors. The animals are symbolic of his Chinese heritage. Much like how Jack doesn’t notice the differences yet of having two parents from separate races I also didn’t realize the differences pertaining to a different culture until I started to meet other people in the community.

Growing up in a home with a parent of a different race we tend to not make a distinction of differences before school starts or until others notice and point it out. For Jack, it begins when they move to the suburbs, and have guests over. “The neighborhood ladies begin to speak about how “mixing never seems right” and that Jack looks like “a little monster with slanty eyes and white face.” (Liu) They wonder why Jack’s father chose to marry outside of American culture. Reading this from the story my heart broke for Jack, and it broke for my former child as well because just like Jack I began to experience bullying and racial slurs from peers because of what we look like. I felt Jacks’ confusion and conflict when he was being called a chink and parallel that experience to when I would be told this is America speak English. Despite the bullying eventually, we make friends and for Jack he has Mark. Jack wasn’t fond of Marks toys, so Jack showed him the origami animals. This is when Mark began to call the figures trash thus planting a seed of insecurity. During the time that Jack is showing Mark the tiger, Marks toys are knocked over. Mark angrily tells Jack, “It probably cost more than your dad paid for your mom…here’s your stupid cheap Chinese garbage…” Being treated that way at that developing age creates bitterness in oneself and towards others. On one side the wanting to belong is so strong and the resentment that grows towards your roots creates so much turmoil within living two identities.

Growing up and becoming more aware of the differences between myself and others I grew to develop resentment and bitterness towards myself and my family for being different. While I was battling my parents for them to try to learn fluent English Jack was battling his mother to speak English. Despite Jacks parents’ very hard efforts, she continued to speak choppy English and whenever she tries to speak to Jack, he ignores her. “We are not other families.” I looked at him. Other families don’t have moms who don’t belong.” (Liu) Jack is ashamed of his mother because his mother is a mail-order bride that his father paid to get sent to the U.S. The problem with growing up in essentially two different worlds is the lack of a sense of belonging all the while I see myself reflected in Jack and I understand why he is trying so hard to be more American while the mother’s heart breaks by the way her son is treating her. I can only imagine it was the same way I broke my parents’ hearts trying to change them so I could fit in.

Many first-generation immigrants struggle with trying to fit in and even I began to struggle with my own identity just like Jack. “The discrimination against Chinese in American society was internalized into Jack’s self-discrimination. He was eager to abandon all the Chinese things in his life. He blamed all the discrimination he had suffered on his mother who was Chinese. He did not question whether the racism against Chinese was correct or not, but was trapped in the feelings of self-hatred, and could not find his own identity accurately.” (Hang) Jack is ashamed of his Chinese heritage so much that it creates self-hatred, and he refuses to speak Chinese, eat Chinese food, and even refuses to speak to his mother. Jack is ashamed of these things because these are the things that cause him to be an outcast and cause many others to be outcasts as well. Jack stops playing with his animals and packs them away in a box. “By boxing up his paper animals, Jack is figuratively “boxing up” his Chinese heritage to assimilate into American culture.” (Prendergast) Jack blames all his discrimination on his Chinese mother and is trapped not being able to distinguish his own identity.

Years have passed by and on her deathbed, his mother asks Jack to keep the box of the Paper Menagerie and to look at them every Qingming. Qingming can be the equivalent of my culture’s Day of the Dead where I celebrate my deceased ancestors. When Jack was young, he would help his mother write letters and I would help my mother to make Kleenex flowers for my family’s altar. After Jack’s mother passed Jack took out the origami animals and discovered that there is writing on Laohu his tiger. It is a letter from his mother telling of her suffering and her life story, the love she has for Jack, and the great sadness that she had to endure when becoming ignored by him. In the village where she grew up origami is very famous; she is very poor and became an orphan at ten then is trafficked to Hong Kong to be a servant. She suffered abuse for many years before she is picked by Jack’s father to be his future bride. Jack’s father is a good man but there is the language barrier and living in a completely new country with no one she knew or looked like her. She is alone. All the while that Jack is hearing this letter being translated to him, he starts to become ashamed of himself much like myself when reading this passage, I felt my stomach sink to my knees because I could only think of my parents who gave up their entire family and everything they knew to pursue a better life for me.

Jack’s birth gives her life new meaning because she sees her family in him and her homeland. Teaching him about origami gives her a sense of belonging until Jack refuses to speak with her which fills her with great sadness until her death. “Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair. 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 all over again. Why won’t you talk to me, son?” (Liu) All the shame and guilt that Jack is feeling at this moment is the exact shame and guilt I felt about myself because this story hits home with those who have one heart but two identities. The shame of never being able to sympathize with his mother and the guilt of never listening to her story due to selfish reasoning.

As children of mixed marriages or different races, Jack and I couldn’t comprehend the life-changing struggles of parents and the self-sacrifice that happened. It is only after the fact of growing up and self-discovery that Jack and I can finally listen and understand. Jack can sympathize with his mother’s suffering that she had to endure. “The story is a powerful allegory about the experience that so many children of immigrants have. But in addition to describing an allegory of how we relate to our heritage, the story is also a heartbreaking look at the ways children relate or distance themselves from their parents as they grow up.” (Franklin) Through the letter, Jack’s mother can tell Jack her story and Jack is able to put aside the misunderstandings he has of his mother. Jack is no longer ashamed of his mother or of his Chinese heritage.

“The letter inside Laohu reconciles Jack to his mother and his Chinese heritage: he writes the Chinese character for ai, meaning love, all over the letter, refolds the letter into the shape of a tiger, and tenderly carries it home with him. Thus, Jack’s love for, rejection of, and reunification with his paper animals mirrors his love for, rejection of, and reunification with his Chinese heritage.” (Prendergast) In the end, it is the self-discovery of love that brings Jack back to his mother and to his roots. Jack by writing over and over the Chinese character for ai he is asking his mother for forgiveness for all the years he neglected her, and it shows his acceptance of his Chinese culture and settles his identity crisis. Ken Liu’s amazing story illuminates the struggles that many individuals go through with having to struggle to be American enough for the Americans and still be proud of different cultural backgrounds. Growing up with one heart and two identities many endure racism, resentment, identity conflict, and most importantly self-discovery of love.

Works Cited

Franklin, MJ. “MashReads Podcast.” ‘The Paper Menagerie’ is a heartbreaking story of family and immigration, told in just a few pages. 2018. Podcast.

Hang, YU. “An Analysis of the Reconstruction of Chinese American Identity in The Paper Menagerie.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies (2020): 3-4. Document.

Liu, Ken. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories . Saga Press, 2016. Book.

Prendergast, Finola. “”The Paper Menagerie Theme Wheel”.” Symbolism Thesis. 2022. Web Document.


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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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