Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie is a story of culture, heritage, assimilation, and parental love. In the story, Jack, a boy with a Chinese mom and an American dad, recounts to us the events from his childhood to adulthood wherein he reveals how his relationship with his mother slowly becomes strained and distant. As a child, Jack grew up hating his mother and her culture as he believes in the need to assimilate himself into the American life. Seen from his perspective, one can see the pain and thoughts of a child who is torn between two cultures. One particular scene from the original story was Jack and his mom’s last talk together which is presented from Jack’s perspective. However, if one tries to look at the story from the mother’s perspective, one would be able to see the pain that Jack’s mother has to go through and endure because her child hates her for her cultural identity. With the addition of the mother’s perspectives in the retelling, the theme of parental love and difficulties of parenthood, present in the original story, are further highlighted and given emphasis on.
In the retold version of the scene, the last encounter between Jack and his mother, we are able to look at the event from the mother’s eyes thereby allowing us to understand how Jack’s mother would feel in comparison to what Jack feels during the same event. In this particular scene, we see in the original story how Jack does not want to be there in the hospital as he says, in the original text, “My mind was not in the room. It was in the middle of the on-campus recruiting season, and I was focused on resumes, transcripts, and strategically constructed interview schedules” (Liu 185). And while Jack knows that he shouldn’t feel that way, he still does due to his strained relationship with his mother that was brought about by events such as the bullying he went through in his childhood. In the adaptation, the mother notes Jack’s reluctance as well as she says, “I know, from the dead look in his eyes, that he doesn’t want to be here” (Tejada). By including Jack’s indifference in the retelling, Jack’s feelings and how this is perceived by his mother is highlighted and brings to light how highly Jack’s mom values him as she tries to read him and his emotions.
Jack’s indifference and his mom’s awareness of his feelings could further be supported by the words said by Jack’s mom in both the original and the adaptation, whereby Jack’s mom tells him not to worry about her and to go back to school signaling to us how she understands his reluctance to be there for her in her time of need (Liu 186; Tejada). These words by Jack’s mom indicate the love she has for her son as she tries to understand him even though she is in the brink of her death. She says, “This is not a big deal. Just do well in school” and through this we see that even though she knows she is dying, she still prioritizes Jack. The fact that she knows she is dying is supported by the original text whereby she says, “And I think maybe this pain I feel all the time now is something serious” along with the fact that she mentioned Qingming, the Chinese Festival for the Dead (Liu 186; 189). Therefore, by adding in the adaptation, the mother’s thoughts and understanding of Jack even at her deathbed, the parental love of Jack’s mom is further bolstered and shown which leads us to further understand Jack’s mother.
By looking at the story from the mother’s perspective, we are able to perceive the story from both Jack and his mom’s eyes and help us gain a better understanding of the story in regard to the theme of parental love and parenthood. The adaptation of the event, seen from the mother’s side, also highlights the fact that parents are afraid of being hated by their own child. This could be seen in the adaptation when the mother tries to tell Jack, “Please don’t despise me till the end” (Tejada). In the original text, this same idea can be seen in the mother’s letter for Jack where she says, “You are so angry when I try to touch you that I’m afraid” (Liu 189). The mother’s fear of being hated by her son is evident and this leads her to try to understand her son better thereby supporting the idea of parental love once more.
Although the adaptation of the story focuses on the mother’s love for Jack, there are also some details that pertain to the mother’s culture as the adaptation reads, “I know you don’t like anything related to where I came from, China” (Tejada). On the other hand, parts regarding the magical aspect of the original story like paper animals coming to life has been left out in the retold version of the scene and instead, the retold version has taken on a more realistic approach to the story. This could lead the readers of the adaptation with the impression that the original text is more focused on the relationship between a mother and son with the cultural aspects of the story in the background and with no magical aspect at all and hence, taking the story away from the genre of fantasy. However, by focusing on the relationship between Jack and his mom in the adaptation, we could highlight the theme of parenthood and parental love, a theme that has not been emphasized so much as compared to cultural identity and assimilation in the original story. This would, in turn, help readers look at the story and focus on more themes such as the difficulties of parenthood and unconditional parental love that have been brought up in the story thereby helping us to understand the story as a whole.