Name: kasia balls

Text title: The paper Menagerie

Text type: short story

Date finished :18/10/18

The paper Menagerie is a short story told by a mixed-race man, Jack, telling of his childhood living with his American father and Chinese mother in Connecticut. The story follows the disintegration of his relationship with his mother, because of her heritage, her not being able to speak English properly and Jack’s desperation to be an all-American boy, to fit in properly. He increasingly loses respect for her and won’t acknowledge how much his words and actions are hurting her “Other families don’t have moms who don’t belong”

Although he knows a little of his mother’s history, it’s not enough to help him understand her. He knows his father chose her as a “mail-order bride” which again affects his respect for her “WHat kind of woman puts herself into a catalog so that she can be bought?”. He feels contempt for her “Contempt felt good, like wine.

It’s not until she dies that he learns her full story, from a letter she wrote on an origami animal she had made for him. When he understands what she has been through, how she suffered and struggled to even survive he is overcome with feelings of guilt and regret.

The theme of the story is how we let other people influence how we act and feel, instead of being true to ourselves or our background and heritage. Other people can make us feel ashamed of who we are and where we come from.

At the beginning of the story, the relationship between Jack and his mother is almost magical. When he is a small boy and she makes him different origami animals, his favourite is a tiger “Laohu”. They are very percious to him and he spends hours playing with them, repairing them when thet get old and torn.

It is when Jack notices how other people react to his mother that he starts to grow away from her. The neighbors ask about the marriage ‘He seems like a normal enough man. Why did he do that?’ and also Jack’s mixed race is criticized ‘The child looks unfinished. Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster”. He is embarrassed when another boy sees his paper zoo and calls his animals trash.  Jack starts to look at his life from other peoples perspective and doesn’t like what he sees. He starts to reject the Chinese parts of himself which include his mother, her language, the food she cooks and the origami she made him.

‘English’, Speak English’ he repeatedly tells his mother, but however hard she tries it’s never good enough, and so she stops trying. Even her husband tells her she needs to fit in for Jack’s sake. ‘Mom hunched down in her seat, looking like the water buffalo when Laohu used to pounce on him and squeeze the air of life out of him.’ Even though Jack knows he’s hurting her, he doesn’t stop criticising and rejecting her. ‘We had nothing in common. She might as well be from the moon. I would hurry on to my room, where I could continue my all-American pursuit of happiness’.

Even when his mother is dying in the hospital, Jack is wanting to hurry away from her. He has got more important things to do. He is impatient and awkward around her. It is Susan, Jack’s partner who starts him looking at his mother differently. She treasures the paper animals that she has rescued from the box in the attic ‘Your mum was an amazing artist’. Jack comes across Laohu hidden in a corner, and he remembers how much he used to love his paper tiger. He finds the letter from his mother written in Chinese and is suddenly desperate to know what she has written to him. ‘I felt the words sinking into me, through my skin, through my bones, until they squeezed tight around my heart’.

His mother has written the letter to describe the pain she feels because of his rejection and contempt. She had wanted to tell him her history so that he could understand her better, but he never gave her the chance to. ‘The first memory I have was waking up to see my mother eating dirt so that she could fill her belly and leave the last bit of flour for me’. After the Cultural Revolution his grandmother killed herself and his grandfather was dragged away. 

Being a mail order bride must have seemed like an escape for his mother. He should have felt pride for her, not contempt. ‘Your father was kind and gentle with me, and I was very grateful to him. But no one understood me, and I understood nothing.’ It is not until Jack understands her and her history that he starts to respect and value his mother again. But it is too late. She is gone.

Too often people are criticised for being different, for having other values or behaviours or dress. People from different backgrounds or cultures don’t always make the effort to learn about or understand those differences. 

We should value people for who they are, respect their history and their culture without trying to change them to fit into a certain box. Everyone is an individual and has their own story. Understanding and respect are all important. We shouldn’t feel like we have to change to meet someone else’s expectations. 

In a way I am fortunate to have a family with different heritages. I have family from England, Germany, South Africa, Antigua and now I am in New Zealand. I hope that I would never feel embarrassed by our differences. I am proud of my family, and value everyone as an individual.

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