‘The Paper Menagerie’, by Ken Liu
Read it here in 15 minutes.
Thinking about using foreign language and genre to illustrate a theme…
I love how Liu uses words from a foreign language, and the magical realism genre, to show the character’s confusion about his identity.
Chinese is character-based, but Liu Romanises the words so the reader can speak them, aloud or in their head, even if they can’t understand them; Liu wants the reader to hear the mother’s foreign voice, just as the narrator does.
The protagonist is a mixed-race American. He struggles with his cultural identity, and has a poor relationship with his mother because she does things ‘the Chinese way’ and won’t speak English. You can see this in his recollection of a childhood incident, where his mother tries to soothe him by making origami animals.
The first thing his mother says is not translated, and there are no clues in the dialogue about what it means (“Kan, kan”) – he is refusing to engage with her, by not telling the reader the meaning of the words.
The second thing she says is also not translated (“Kan,” she said, “laohu.”), but the narration that follows indicates what the mother has just done, which vaguely suggests the meaning of the words: ‘She put her hands down on the table and let go. / A little paper tiger stood on the table’ – the boy’s interest in his mother is piqued, because of the paper tiger.
As the boy starts to enjoy his new paper tiger, laughing and playing with it, the next thing she says is translated: ‘“Zhe jiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.’ – a connection with his mother has been established, through her creation of the paper animals; he’s engaged with her, and her language.
Later, the protagonist accidentally speaks Chinese in front of this English friend: ‘“Xiao laohu,” I said, and stopped. I switched to English. “This is Tiger.”’ The protagonist is starting to value his culture; to want to share it. But, sadly, this is ruined by his English friend, who tells him the tiger is ‘trash’.
One of the things I love about ‘The Paper Menagerie’ is that you can read it in two ways: either his mother has actual magical powers, and can make paper animals that come alive; or the child was just using his imagination, and the origami was only magical because it was ‘foreign’ to him (ironic).
I speak Mandarin, and it does annoy me when people say not to include foreign words in English writing. Bi and polylingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world, and as you can see from this short story, using a foreign language in your writing can be used to create effects such as showing a character’s isolation or their connections with others. So, go ahead and use your languages.