The Hundred Secret Senses

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, Olivia Yen Bishop, an unhappy Chinese American woman, goes to her father's old village in China on the advice of her older half-sister Kwan. On the way the reader sees her struggling between two cultures: American and Chinese. As such many of the novel's most important quotes relate to identity.

Olivia's half sister Kwan has a very strong Chinese identity. She was brought up in China and believes in many of the old Chinese customs and superstitions, including have what she calls "yin eyes."

"Libby-ah. I must tell you something, a forbidden secret. It's too much of a burden to keep inside me any longer... I have yin eyes. I can see yin people."
"What do you mean?"
"Yin people, they are those who have already died."

The first sign of the discrepancy between American and Chinese cultures occurs when Olivier's parents send Kwan to electric shock treatment for claiming she can see ghosts. As Kwan says

All that electricity loosened my tongue so I could no longer stay silent as a fish. I became a country duck, crying gwa-gwa-gwa!- bragging about the World of Yin. Then four bad ghosts shouted, "How can you tell our secrets?" They gave me a yin-yang tou- forced me to tear out half my hair.

If Kwan represents Olivier's Chinese heritage than her husband Simon represents her American side.

Simon strides off and I notice how American his swagger looks, especially here on foreign soil. He walks in his own rhythm; he doesn't conform to the crowd.

When they finally divorce there is a sense that she married him to only to fit in. While there was love in their marriage it was never the special love she had always hoped for.

I think about our marriage. The weft of our seventeen years together was so easily torn apart. Our love was as ordinary as the identical welcome mats found in the suburbs we grew up in. The fact that our bodies, our thoughts, our hearts had once moved in rhythm with each other had only fooled us into thinking we were special.

She realises that she could love find anywhere.

The world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true. . .And believing in ghosts - that's believing that love never dies. If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them anytime with our hundred secret senses.

As Kwan states everybody as a special place.

“The next world is 'segregated'? You can go to the World of Yin only if you're Chinese?"
"No-no! Miss Banner, she not Chinese, she go to Yin World. All depend what you love, what you believe. You love Jesus, go Jesus House. You love Allah, go Allah Land. You love sleep, go sleep."
"What if you don't believe in anything for sure before you die?"
"Then you go big place, like Disneyland, many places can go try--you like, you decide. No charge, of course.”

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