12 November 2017
Curiosity as Endurance; Methods of Sonder in First Person Plural and “The Paper Menagerie”
Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s Marilyn is provocative in the unique way it presents perspective on identity. Not halfway into the work, she puts forth a particularly thought-provoking belief in her statement: “I believe survival is not about hunger. Nor nourishment. Nor hope. Nor anger. Nor love. It is about curiosity” (Reavey 39). To me, the curiosity she speaks of is more of a sonder, which is defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” according to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Sonder is an imperative part of life, as it reminds one of others’ perspectives and that oneself is not the center of the universe. Every person has a complex history and identity and in order to survive, as a human race perhaps, one needs to be mindful of these other histories. The more I reflect on this sentiment, the more Deann Borshay Liem’s documentary First Person Plural comes to mind. Borshay Liem’s work highlights her own perspective as a transatlantic adoptee in contrast with her American family’s perspective on her identity. Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” also explores this phenomenon through the eyes of a second generation Chinese American. In First Person Plural, Deann becomes curious about her identity and her culture while her family continues to reject everything about her that they do not understand. In The Paper Menagerie, Jack begins his life with curiosity when he believes in the spirit of the paper animals his mother makes him, but loses touch with this belief and any connection to his mother, who lives outside of his all-American ideal. These characters teach us that a lack of curiosity is hurtful and dangerous and support Reavey’s claim that curiosity is the most important element of survival — perhaps not the survival of a single individual, but that of a thriving community or society.
Deann’s family’s lack of understanding or interest in her real identity is a running theme throughout First Person Plural. Deann’s birth name, Kang Ok Jin, is a specific point of interest as none of her American family members care to remember it. When her sister Denise asks her, “‘What was your other name? Your real name?’” Deann asks “‘Don’t you remember it?’” Denise does not, so when Deann tells her, she exclaims with a strange triumph, “‘See! That doesn’t mean nothing to me. You’re still Cha Jung Hee’” (Borshay Liem 21:07). While to Denise, her indifference to her sister’s real name versus the false one she was given may seem like unconditional love — it doesn’t matter what her name is, Deann will always be her sister — this indifference is actually ignorance and insensitivity in regard to Deann’s identity. What Denise fails to realize is that her insistence in calling Deann her false name is a complete erasure of her adopted sister’s true identity. By asking for her “real name,” Denise clarifies that she does indeed know and understand the story behind Deann’s name change on her birth certificate, which makes her next statement even more offensive. When she so pointedly states “‘See!’” at her lack of recognition of the name Kang Ok Jin, it is as if she finds validation in her choice to make no effort to remember it. She obviously does not allow herself to think critically about her sister’s association with the name Cha Jung Hee, or how she might be upset by the fact that she continues to address her as her false identity simply because it is easier for her to remember a name she has grown up knowing. There is a lack of empathy that the documentary makes painfully clear that perhaps Denise has never been able to see for herself.
Deann’s mother also rejects looking at things from her daughter’s perspective. When Deann questions her mother on why she never asked about what was going on with her in regard to her discovery of her other identity, her mother replies: “‘I don’t know. I don’t really remember. Maybe I was afraid you’d tell me. Maybe I was afraid to know, because at that time, to me it was quite scary, I was afraid I was going to lose you. I just enjoyed what we had and never thought so much about us discussing it’” (Borshay Liem 23:58). First of all, the fact that Alveen does not have an immediate answer to Deann’s question is extremely telling; it never crosses her mind to ask her daughter how she juggles her very separate identities, which demonstrates just how aversive she is to face any Deann but the one she raised as an American. She does admit to herself that she fears what Deann could tell her that could change her perspective, so I suppose this awareness is the first step toward a braver curiosity in different parts of her daughter’s life. However, the curiosity stops there as Alveen never gives any indication that she will change this defensive mechanism and risk Deann disrupting the family dynamic they created.
Deann possesses a curiosity that her American family lacks. She has the courage to think more critically about her life in America and how it contrasts with her life in Korea. This distinction becomes clear when she imagines what her life could have been if she had assimilated more fully into American culture. She admits: “‘My life could have probably continued on a track [if] I had [stayed] in Fremont, and I would have married somebody in Fremont, I would have lived a few blocks from my parents and stayed near them, and it would have been an okay life’” (Borshay Liem 14:59). As she says this, images flash across the screen of Deann in her cheerleading uniform or with lots of mascara in attempts to have eyelashes like her sister, or beside her prom date who is white. These images make it very easy for the audience to imagine exactly what her life would have been like, and contemplate how her American family probably always predicted this life for her, unable to see any alternative. Deann’s adjective choice for this imagined life is “okay,” which implies that she wouldn’t have suffered if this had played out, perhaps she even would have survived, but Kang Ok Jin would not have. If she had ignored her Korean history as much as her adopted family did, her true identity and her account of her family history would have died.
Similar to Deann’s family, Jack is quite adverse to any attempts to think about his mother’s perspective in “The Paper Menagerie.” About halfway through the story, he considers: “Sometimes, when I came home and saw her tiny body busily moving about in the kitchen, singing a song in Chinese to herself, it was hard for me to believe that she gave birth to me. We had nothing in common. She might as well be from the Moon. I would hurry on to my room, where I could continue my all-American pursuit of happiness” (Liu 70). It seems as though Jack has taken Deann’s brief contemplation of American assimilation and brought it to life. Each description he gives others his mother, such as her “tiny body” or his choice to “hurry on to my room” as if he could not bare to share even physical space with her. He is on his way to completely ignoring and thus erasing his mother’s story, which would stomp out his own history. This train of thought is one that seems very juvenile, as a normal part of growing up, wanting to fit in, and feeling antagonistic toward any difference one might have from the norm. Jack’s mother’s death rekindles his curiosity in his otherness and any separateness he shares with her. Though she dies before she sees this change in her son, I believe her culture may be reborn in the revival of Jack’s curiosity at the end of the story.
Part of the beauty of Liu’s short story is his interpretation of curiosity, which he portrays through the personification of the paper animals Jack’s mother makes. When Jack is younger, he has no problem believing that his mother really does breathe life into these animals and associates them with her love for him. He becomes much more closed-minded as he matures and stops believing in his mother’s abilities, yet after he reads her posthumous letter, a resurgence in this belief takes ahold of him as evidenced in the concluding sentences: “Following the creases, I refolded the paper back into Laohu. I cradled him in the crook of my arm, and as he purred, we began the walk home” (Liu 76). My interpretation of this conclusion is that Jack regains his curiosity for the magical quality of his mother and her relationship with her culture. Firstly, his willingness to refold the paper into his favorite childhood toy is a step toward embracing the culture that he has tried so hard to ignore. Secondly, the fact that Laohu is once again personified with the verb “purred” and again in Liu’s use of the pronoun “we” shows an even greater effort in Jack regaining this curious side of himself. The ending encourages the reader to believe that this moment after the letter sparks a change in Jack and that he may begin to do more research into his and his mother’s history and how it forms his own identity. So perhaps his story does not end in the more ignorant way Deann imagines for herself.
Sonder is a significantly valuable phenomenon when it comes to the preservation of culture and existence. Empathy is not just important in that it allows one to connect emotionally with others, it is also informative and instructive on another’s perspective, a way to push back against one single story of one’s life. In the case of one’s heritage and its connection to identity, learning is surviving, and adapting and growing without suppressing or forgetting is thriving. Through the educational value of empathy, Borshay Liem is able to teach the importance of curiosity and what it means to think critically about other perspectives. Through the science fiction lens of his story, Liu is able to demonstrate the benefits of curiosity and the immense power it holds. Works of fiction and film are perhaps the best ways to push back against an uncurious mind that remains stubbornly blind to all perspectives but one.
First Person Plural. Deann Borshay Liem. Sundance Film Festival, 2000. Kanopy. Web. 12 November 2017.
Liu, Ken. “The Paper Menagerie.” The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Saga Press, 2016. pp. 64-76.
Reavey, Amanda Ngoho. Marilyn. Operating System Publication, 2015.