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Written by Timothy Sexton
The White Cat
It would be tempting to say the white cat is a metaphor for death, but that is missing the point. The white cat is a harbinger of death, a messenger from the other side. The metaphorical quality of the white cat penetrates deeper than a mere symbolic stand-in for the Grim Reaper. The cat is invested with the metaphorical qualities of that moment of recognition that the end of mortality is near. The cat is metaphor for that moment when consciousness of death makes that sudden switch from the abstract to the concrete.
"Chinese words were awkward and messy, like quicksand."
The simile is a comparison of astonishing versatility. For one thing, it is palpable; a reader can easily make the connection intended that about the difficulties of learning. Who hasn’t felt that like they were sinking in quicksand when struggling to learn some new difficult subject? The struggle for mastery does become messy itself. The comparison is also useful for attribution beyond merely learning language. It reaches into the novel’s thematic clutter of culture clash as the characters try to wade through the quicksand of assimilation into one culture without losing touch with another culture.
"hands like silk"
Jung-Sum, victim of abusive neglectful biological parents before being adopted by the Chen family, is force to ponder to himself “And here I was, ten years old, with hands like silk” as if it actually some mark of a profound character flaw that a little kid has soft hands. This moment of realization and self-questioning is stimulated by insults from older Chinese men making claims to already having been worked so their hands were calloused at half Jung-Sum’s age. It adds another layer to the novel’s preoccupation with the clash of cultures by reminding reader that the clash even occurs within cultures by those who are ready to assimilate and those who fight against fitting in.
Jung-Sum’s obsession with the Chen family being foxes in disguise works as metaphor on two levels. The most obvious symbolic connection here is to near-universal representation of the fox as a crafty animal. In Chinese mythology, things go to the next level; the fox is not merely clever and cunning enough to escape danger, but is more akin to the archetype of the Trickster who purposely tries to mislead humans by initiating the cunning behavior. At the same time, the fox is also removed of this metaphorical meaning by Jung-Sum being the only character to obsess over it as from his perspective the fox becomes a metaphor for childhood innocence commingled with childhood ignorance.
The Chinese kid with a Canadian turtle named after a British King. The perfect metaphor for the quicksand of cultural conflict at work in a novel about trying to find just the right balance between the traditions of an old culture and the necessary sacrifices to be made to fit into a new culture.
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