“Paper Menagerie” explores sociocultural pressures on personhood


Ken Liu’s award-winning short story “Paper Menagerie,” which was first published in the February 2011 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, explores subjects such as race, identity, and family through a fictional narrative of a Chinese-American boy’s second-generation immigrant experience.

The story opens with the narrator, Jack, observing his mother fold an origami tiger, which seems to magically move with life when his mother breathes into it. Born to a Chinese mother and a white American father, Jack is initially incognizant of his own race. However, he gradually comes to realize that he is different from his American peers. With this revelation, Jack begins to feel insecure about his identity and struggles to embrace his Chinese heritage.

Growing up, Jack is subjected to prejudice aimed toward Asian Americans like him. In one conversation between his neighbors that Jack overhears as a child, one neighbor describes him as a “little monster” with ethnically mixed features in a derogatory tone. Jack then begins to notice aspects about himself that he has never noticed before, causing him to eventually reject his physical appearance as well as cultural identity.

The changes in Jack’s perceptions of himself are portrayed through the progression of the narrator’s relationship with his Chinese mother. He not only refuses to speak Chinese to his mother, but also blames her for giving him his Asian features. The paper tiger that his mother folds for him at the beginning of the story slowly fades away from Jack’s memory as he matures into an independent adult, only to reemerge after the passing away of his mother.

“As he grows up, he becomes conscious of the prejudices of neighbors and classmates directed against his mother and himself, and he comes to resent her for tagging him as alien,” said writer Ken Liu in an interview conducted by the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. “But a collection of origami animals made by his mother when he was a child come to life and give him a message.”

Although Jack comes to respect his Asian heritage in the end, the struggle that he faces throughout the story conveys an important message that is pertinent to the modern world. Assumptions and stereotypes continue to hinder multiracial relationships, and perceived differences between ethnic groups make people self-conscious.

Reading this story was a meaningful experience for me as it forced me to more fully comprehend the difficulties that many immigrants face. “Paper Menagerie” highlights that racism is not a problem that is specific to any one nation, but an issue that demands the attention of all countries across the globe. Taking into consideration that many students at SIS are planning to attend colleges abroad, I would definitely recommend this story.

You can find Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie” here. Enjoy!