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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

The Paper Menagerie - Ken Liu This short, bittersweet, and deceptively simple 15-page story (which you can read free here) focuses on the unexpected pain of trying to belong, showing it through a boy's troubled relationship with his mother, viewed through the prism of cultural conflict, the inevitable clash between the old and the new, and the soft tinge of origami-shaped sadness. " Dad had picked Mom out of a catalog.""What kind of woman puts herself into a catalog so that she can be bought? The high school me thought I knew so much about everything. Contempt felt good, like wine."The need to belong is intrinsic to all people. But especially for children, it is the make-it-or-break-it need, the force that determines their viewpoints, attitudes, the way they experience the world. It is meant to be protective, help become a part of the greater whole, a part of a group, clan, society. But when you come from a background very different from that of most of your peers, how do you reconcile the childhood need to belong to the majority and your heritage? How do you appreciate both without resenting either one? It is immensely difficult, and immigrant children seem to so often go through the grotesquely amplified rebellion of preteen and teen years, rejecting their parents and what they represent with almost unexpected vigor, holding on to the beliefs of their new home and their 'native' peers and turning their back in shame and resentment at the 'different' that their parents signify. "We are not other families.” I looked at him. Other families don’t have Moms who don’t belong."It hurts to be different as a child. And just as much it hurts for the parents to be rejected by their child, the one in whom they have hoped to preserve some of their 'old' culture and family and traditions. (I love "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"! But unlike that movie, this story has none of the lighthearted attitude towards the 'otherness'. There is only sadness.)----------------"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. Dad shook his head. “You are in America."And this estrangement felt so very painful in the short space of this story as it was contrasted with the years of Jack's childhood when he was happily laughing at his mother's creations an playing with Laohu the Tiger - the times before he realized his 'difference' and set out onto a determined course to change that. The course that brought him to the point when college became more important than his mother's death."If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I was around.""Mom finally stopped making the animals when I was in high school. By then her English was much better, but I was already at that age when I wasn’t interested in what she had to say whatever language she used."I could easily relate to the teenage feelings of being ashamed of your parents. Isn't that feeling universal to all teenagers, protected by their maximalistic feelings of invulnerability and superiority? But the lengths to Jack goes to estrange his mother from him were so painful, so cruel that my heart was breaking for his mother whom he never understood, the differences from whom he cherished, to whom she became nothing more than an embarrassing awkward former mail-order Chinese bride, little more than a reminder of what made him different from what he wanted to be - a 'native', keeping him from his "all-American pursuit of happiness"."You shouldn’t treat your mother that way," Dad said. But he couldn’t look me in the eyes as he said it. Deep in his heart, he must have realized that it was a mistake to have tried to take a Chinese peasant girl and expect her to fit in the suburbs of Connecticut."The quiet mystical element to this story - magical origami animals that came to life with the breath of Jack's mother - felt very organic and, of course, highly symbolic. I loved the quiet presence of magic, filling Jack's childhood like it is for many children, being his connection to his mother, and cruelly put away when it was no longer needed.The only part I could have lived without was the letter from his mother that Jack reads in the end. It explained a lot about his mother, but in the end I felt that its well-intentioned heavy-handedness was unnecessary. The impact of this story is already strong enough without knowing all the horrific elements of Jack's mother's childhood and her reasons for becoming the despised by her son mail-order bride. For me, just the way her son treated her because of her 'difference' was already enough; it was cruel in a way only kids can be cruel, and she did not need to be justified to me by her difficult childhood. My heart was already breaking for her and her son, caught in the middle of the culture clash. I did not need the extra exposition.----------------4 stars. A good story that takes only a few minutes to read - so go ahead and read it! "You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It’s for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone."