The high school me thought I knew so much about everything.
One of the things about growing up is being able to look back on what seemed important once and realize how blinkered and strange a person one used to be. “The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, captures this feeling eloquently.
This story of a boy, his mother, and the toys she makes for him, engages with the challenges of growing up in a mixed-race family. As Jack, the boy, grows up, he yearns to fit in. He wants normal toys and a mother who speaks proper English. He rejects the magical origami his mother crafts for him, and he rejects her and the culture of her first home, China.
But this rejection sets the stage for a deeper understanding. Years later, Jack receives a letter from his mother, and he learns about her life. This moment, of seeing his mother as a person, with feelings and dreams, throws a revealing light over Jack’s earlier choices.
Growing up is often not pleasant, especially in such strange moments of revelation. The story leaves it to the reader to imagine the impact of this letter on Jack, but it will be profound. My reading of the story suggests that Jack will find solace in something stronger than his regrets: the love of his mother, which endures any rejection.
“The Paper Menagerie” appeared in the March/April Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.