From a Field Report to a Primary Student’s Homework
By Jean Chen ∥ Translated by May Huang
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

At the end of August, I went to my weight training class as usual. My coach has three children, and his eldest daughter was starting grade three in two days. Being the mischievous auntie I am, I couldn’t help but tease his adorable kids; as they bounded into the room, I turned to the eldest and taunted, “well, have you finished your summer homework yet?” To my surprise, she threw me a look and responded coldly, “I finished it ages ago.”

What?! Wasn’t today the last day of summer? A time when the whole family should be scrambling, while mom and dad help the kids complete their assignments? I recall loathing summer homework as a kid, especially the daily journal. Who could remember what the weather was like for the past 59 days? The worst part was sitting at my desk, reliving the summer in my head; after all, what did I do that was possibly worth writing about in my journal?

The protagonist of Open Eyes, Open Mind! is not like me at all. When her new art teacher assigns the students to “get to know someone”, she is somewhat bemused, but is named “Angel” after all, so begins to work on this task right away. She comes home and asks for help from her mother, who is a senior strategist at work and has written countless business proposals. Her advice? “Make it up.”

Because her mom won’t come to the rescue, Angel turns (virtually) to her dad, who often works abroad. Over video, her dad is pleased to help, and offers his advice: “It’s best to find someone who’s interesting and has a strong sense of style. That would make your assignment easier! Your dad, for example, is a perfect choice. What do you think? Wanna get to know your dad?”

At this point, Angel begins to feel frustrated; what does it mean to “get to know someone”? Meeting their parents? Knowing their interests? A student who wears glasses raises their hand and asks: “Can you get to know someone you already know?” It is through this question that author Pam Pam Liu reveals the purpose of the art teacher’s assignment: “Everyone has many different sides. Through this experience you’ll get to know someone you already knew even better, and you might even learn something new!”

Pam Pam’s graphic novel is based on the sociological text Struggling to Raise Children: Globalization, Parental Anxiety and Unequal Childhoods by Distinguished Professor Lan Pei-Chia of Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University. Professor Lan visited nearly 60 households to conduct field interviews and observed different teaching environments to analyze the differences between the middle class and the working class, ultimately drawing certain conclusions about Taiwan’s educational models. The result was an important field report on the state of education in contemporary Taiwan.

But perhaps Open Eyes, Open Mind! is not so much an adaptation, but a continuation of Professor Lan’s work. Breaking away from the structure of a sociological text, Pam Pam has decided to adopt a different perspective in her graphic novel, that of a child. Through the “get to know someone” homework assignment, our protagonist explores the lives of relatives and friends, revealing the different family structures and parenting styles around her.

It’s no easy feat to tell a story through the eyes of a child; how do kids communicate? How do they interact? Why does an annoying classmate suddenly become less annoying once you get to know their backstory? Pam Pam even draws from her personal experience of being invited to a friend’s house as a kid, and being asked to take out the trash.… In a setting that is at once grounded in reality, yet absurd, Angel gets to know her classmates, relatives, and mother in a new light, armed with her art class textbook.

Open Eyes, Open Mind! is Pam Pam’s fifth commercially-published work. From My Friend, Cancer to A Trip to the Asylum to Super Supermarket, behind the cute, round characters Pam Pam creates is always sharp social commentary. In My Friend, Cancer, she uses the experience of taking care of her mom who has cancer to explore the conflicted disposition that comes with being an eldest daughter. A Trip to the Asylum is set in a mental hospital, but asks us to think about who in the “real world” may be mad.  

Reading Pam Pam’s graphic novels often makes me think of the lyrics of “Deserts Chang”: “the deepest words must be said plainly”, “painful wounds must be touched gently”. Pam Pam interrogates Taiwan’s class dynamics, and the educational and familial structures of urban and rural areas, through the lens of a primary student’s homework assignment. What choices can parents make given their different social standings and the class gap between urban and rural areas? And how will their children interact with the world?

I particularly like how the story ends:

NOTE: Be warned: if you don’t want any spoilers, I suggest you leave this page, put this book in your shopping cart, check out, and finish reading the graphic novel in your own time.

We tag alongside Angel on her journey of getting to know someone, including her close friends, unfamiliar classmates, her cousin who lives in the countryside, and seemingly enviable classmates from other families. But in the end, Angel decides to get to know her own mother. This is an exceptional twist, and Pam Pam handles it deftly. Angel gets to really know her mother, and the dreams she had before she became a mother. Why does she sign Angel up for so many tutoring classes, packing her day-to-day life with activities?

Pam Pam has ingeniously turned the case studies of a sociological report into a 190-page graphic novel that looks beautiful, has a clear theme, and is well-paced. She captures the same ideas explored in Struggling to Raise Children without losing the allure of a graphic novel; perhaps this is her version of a “reader’s report”. I recommend readers peruse Struggling to Raise Children and Open Eyes, Open Mind! together, which is bound to result in a compelling, intriguing reading experience.