After arrival: Representations of immigration in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2011) and Cicada (2018)

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference abstract


Shaun Tan’s 2011 book The Arrival empathetically depicts the experience of global migration. The wordless graphic novel relies completely on other-worldly images that resemble faded photographs, reflecting the experience of immigration as both intimate and universal. Readers can interpret the story in a number of ways, but the common thread is the protagonist’s quiet dignity and his eventual triumph over the alienation and discrimination he experiences as an immigrant. The book ends with his successful resettlement in the host country, welcoming his wife and daughter to their new homeland. Though this book captures many of the trials and tribulations that first generation immigrants face, the overall message is unreservedly optimistic, the family’s assimilation and adaptation to the new culture is complete.
In contrast, Tan’s 2018 book Cicada demonstrates a much bleaker reality. It addresses the impossibility of assimilation due to ethnic and linguistic differences. The book is at once a serious critique of discrimination against displaced minorities at a Kafkaesque bureaucratic workplace and a masterfully illustrated parable fit for a children’s story. The four-armed green cicada with huge bulging eyes represents the experience of dehumanization, alienation, and oppression often suffered by hardworking yet underappreciated immigrants. The alien-looking cicada represents ethnic minorities who can never fully join the mainstream host culture due to racial and other differences. The cicada’s elementary vocabulary and problematic grammar underscores the linguistic limitations that persist throughout the immigrant’s life, causing him to be undervalued and mistreated.
Compared with The Arrival, Cicada is less optimistic in its depiction of the challenges faced by first generation immigrants. The book, however, does not victimize the protagonist but rather celebrates the cicada’s spiritual resilience. The cicada is an ancient Asian totem. The earliest specimen was found in the Hongshan archaeological site (紅山文化區in today’s Inner Mongolia) and was dated to the late Neolithic Era (about 4,500 B.C.). Frequently carved out of green jade, featuring large protruding eyes, the cicada was one of the most popular talismans worn by the living and buried with the dead from the Stone age to the Qing dynasty. As a symbol of wisdom, transcendence, and rebirth, jade cicadas remain a popular ornament in China to this day. A jade cicada pendent worn on the chest alludes to the Chinese verse “不鳴則已,一鳴驚人”, the spirit of which is captured by the Japanese Haiku on the final page of Tan’s book, “Calm and serene/the sound of a cicada/ penetrates the rock”. Tan’s Cicada reflects the history of discrimination suffered by Chinese migrant workers under White Australia policy; yet by casting a cicada as the protagonist, the story transcends social, cultural and historical specificities to become a universal and timeless parable. This paper demonstrates that the cicada in Tan’s book represents an inner moral strength that frees individuals from being victimized by institutionalized oppression and argues that the cicada isn’t meant to be “calm and serene”, but rather should “penetrate the rock” with its voice.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22 Oct 2021
EventReflexionen über The Arrival Online Symposium - University of Europe for Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 22 Oct 202122 Oct 2021


SymposiumReflexionen über The Arrival Online Symposium
Internet address

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

User-Defined Keywords

  • Immigration
  • Alienation
  • Assimilation
  • Cultural diversity
  • Jade worship
  • Transcendence


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