How Tradition Shapes One's Identity

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Nelson Mandela once declared, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ This couldn’t have been more accurate in Ken Liu’s fascinating anthology ‘The Paper Menagerie. The reader is introduced to a young biracial boy named Jack, who has an American father and a mother who immigrated from China. The story is a heartbreaking glimpse at how adolescents either distance or relate themselves from their mothers as they grow up. In Jack’s case, the audience witnesses the maturation of Jack’s mindset and reveals how his interactions with his mother change as he develops. It demonstrates the experiences that many children of immigrants, like Jack, might have. As Jack grows up in a particular cultural environment, he unconsciously absorbs the beliefs and daily practices of his tradition from his Chinese mother. Despite Jack’s refusal to accept his mother’s traditions, he remains encircled by her heritage, which ultimately plays a tremendous role in the development of his identity and character.

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Tradition and culture shape identity, whether negatively or positively. In Jack’s case, he doesn’t want to follow his mother’s Chinese customs but rather the American customs. This may be caused by how a sub-character, Mark, commented on his toys. He said, “Here’s your stupid cheap Chinese garbage”(Liu, 31). Apparently, Jack’s bullying didn’t end there because when Jack came home from school at the end of two weeks, he looked at himself in the mirror and began to question his shared appearance with his mother. At dinner, he even asked his father if he has a ‘chink face’, which his father frustratedly denied. When his mother asked him about it in Chinese, Jack just shot back at her and demanded her to speak English. When his dad tried to reason with him, Jack stated that his family is not like other families, ‘Other families don’t have Moms who don’t belong.’. His harsh words were only the beginning of Jack’s ignorance and attitude towards his mother and her heritage. Despite Jack’s harsh words, Jack’s mother actually tried to speak her son’s desired language, but she was unsuccessful. Her husband encouraged her more, but then Jack’s mother said something that resembles Nelson Mandela’s almost completely and shook the readers’ hearts. “Mom looked at him. ‘If I say ‘love,’ I feel here.’ She pointed to her lips. ‘If I say ‘ai,’ I feel here.’ She put her hand over her heart”(Liu, 33). That is one of the most heartwrenching words the mother could have said in that specific moment. The way she explained her ‘love’ in her native language proves that no matter where you are, your heart will always attach to your origins, your traditions, and your identity.

One’s identity is influenced by so many aspects of their life which makes one feel mentally disoriented. The environment he lives in, the friends who surround him, and the society we are all sucked into are all huge aspects of Jack’s upbringing. Another person who had to endure the burden of cultural confusion is an author named Firoozeh Dumas. In her book, “Funny in Farsi”, she explains her decision of changing her ethnic Iranian name to an American name, which is ‘Julie’, a simple and common American name. Yet, after a while, she claimed that she ‘felt like a fake’ (Dumas, 62) and changed her name back to Firoozeh. Because of her name switch, she essentially lost her personal identity and didn’t feel like herself. All her family’s history, heritage, tradition, and culture were all going to go down the drain if she has just changed something as simple as her name. Just like Firoozeh, Jack tried to hide his ethnicity and culture to fit into the American environment he lives in. Charlotte G. Latterell, the author of the book “Remix”, states “[T]he social and cultural forces that help shape our sense of identity are not neutral. Instead, they operate like a powerful lens through which we make judgments about ourselves and others” (10). So Jack, being biracial, may have encountered some judgments from his peers and drove him to question his sense of identity. This drives Jack to let out his anger on his mother, who grows increasingly quiet. Soon, he distances himself from his mom until their relationship is awkward and forced.

The end of the story is quite remarkable because Jack finally apprehends what has been going on this whole time and regrets it. He regrets ignoring his mother, he regrets hating her, and he regrets not being there for her when she needed him the most. After Jack’s mother passed away, Jack discovered her letters hidden in his paper menagerie which unraveled her whole life. And for the first time in the story, Jack feels connected to his mother and understands the hardships she had to go through. There is also a feeling that Jack finally accepts who he is. That he is no longer embarrassed by his traditions and that he is proud of his mother.  

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