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Universitii Petrol Gaze din Ploieti

Vol. LXI
No. 1/2009


Seria Filologie

Cultural Identity Tapestry in Amy Tans The Hundred

Secret Senses
Meryem Ayan
Pamukkale University, Turkey

The Hundred Secret Senses is Amy Tan's third novel in which she manages to weave the theme of cross
cultures and cultural identities. Amy Tan weaves a cultural identity tapestry using the coloured threads of
two nations in two different story lines; Olivias story that is shaped by American values, materialism,
self-centeredness, rationality, scepticism, pragmatism, and rejection of the traditional ways of China, and
Kwans story that is weaved by mystical Chinese values and the past. Actually, the two story lines
emphasize the differences between Eastern and Western cultures and how individuals are located
between cultures that conceptualize their identities. Thus, in this paper the major intention is to discuss
the distinct groups of major characters from different centuries and different cultures that have taught
each other how to conceptualize their identities by accepting that there are senses that go beyond the five
customary ones, other modes of knowing and other ways of connecting to other lives that conceptualize
the cultural identity tapestry in Amy Tans The Hundred Secret Senses.

Keywords: cultural identity, biculturalism, narration

. . . You use your secret sense, sometimes can get message back and forth fast between two people,
living, dead, doesnt matter, same sense. [10, 91- 92]
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. [10, 321]

Amy Tan, who comes from a Chinese background but grown in America, explores the issues of
ethnic identity, the paradoxical nature of ethnic-American identity, hyphenated identity, biracial
identity and cultural identity in her works. Generally, in her novels while the landscape is the
geography of immigrants, her interest is universal and familiar, such as the human struggle to
establish a distinct identity, the search for roots and family connections, tensions between
generations, the position of women in a patriarchal culture and the necessity of past and present
connection so that cultural identity could be defined.
Actually, cultural identity has been questioned and would continue to be questioned because
cultural identity is important to an individual, a society and a culture. Cultural identity is the
feeling of identity of a group or culture, or of an individual as far as she/he is influenced by
her/his belonging to a group or culture. The awareness of cultural identity is possible only via
the confrontation with other cultures because of the differences between the unshared and
shared cultural identity. In other words, for the ethnic groups there are two cultures; the one that
they were born into and the one that they belong to, therefore cultural identity can be defined by


Meryem Ayan

confronting these two different cultures and by formulating the self identity. In fact, individual
identity is possible only in relation to the cultural context.
Culture is the context which we need to situate the self, for it is only by virtue of the
interpretations, orientations and values provided by culture that we can formulate our identities,
say who we are and where we are coming from [8, 2].

Cultural identity calls attention to the fact that collective cultural identities imply a much
greater sense of meaning in the formulation of identities because identity is importantly
marked out by difference [8, 3], implying the marking of symbolic boundaries of identity and
the generation of frontier effects. Thus, cultural self-definition implies a continuous contact
between cultures. Moreover, those relations are never relations of equality, since they never
exist in an isolated form: the complex web of relationships created by the superposition of
political, economic, scientific, and cultural relation turns any relation between two cultures into
an unequal one. There is always a dominant culture, or a dominant cultural practice [2, 1] that
forms the duality in the identity formulation.
The development of every human being, which is examined in terms of identifiable items,
appears as a bundle of development lines which expand on different directions and quite
different lengths. However, human beings do not cultivate themselves through their isolated
perfections, but only insofar as they help to develop their identifiable personal unity. In other
words, culture is the way that leads from closed unity through the unfolded multiplicity to the
unfolded unity [3, 40]. People centre their identities on their individuality, rather than on their
ethnicity. They become husbands or wives, lovers or friends and members of a group [8, 3].
Cultural differences must be respected and preserved because one true self is hidden inside
the cultural differences that form the cultural identity, which is a shared culture marked by
differences. Actually, identity is intimately tied to memory [8, 10]. It is the present assault on
memory, with the constant bombardment of images eroding a sense of continuity between past,
present and future that can lead to the possibility of the construction of identities. In fact,
identity requires a narrative of continuity that is provided by memory. Actually, memory is
historically conditioned, changing colour and shape according to the emergencies of the
moment [8, 10]. Thus, cultural differences, place and memory are necessary to preserve, respect
and formulate the cultural identities.
Actually, the cultural identity conceptualization started with the second generation American
born, because they were the ones standing betwixt the cultures and traditions of their
forefathers and of the land of their birth [1, 56]. Therefore, they had to formulate their cultural
identities by confronting with their Chinese culture that they have not observed but heard of and
American culture that they thought they belonged to but could not be totally become part of,
through the memory bridge that helps the transition between the past and present places. Thus,
some of the second generation positioned themselves to serve as ambassadors to both their
parents and their dominant culture. In other words, the role of the Chinese-American second
generation was to explain the American ways to their parents and to interpret the Chinese
culture and civilization to the white Americans [1, 56]. Briefly, the American born Chinese
American second generation functioned as a bridge between the Eastern and the Western
cultures. In coming to recognize the power of the dominant cultures influence in the shaping
of their personal and collective identity, many Asian Americans began to feel that they had no
self-defined identity [5, 86]. Thus, the writers and the cultural activists began to reclaim that
they had an identity as Chinese-Americans because they were physically Chinese but
psychologically American as can be traced in Amy Tans novel The Hundred Secret Senses.

Cultural Identity Tapestry in Amy Tans The Hundred Secret Senses


The Hundred Secret Senses explores issues such as ethnicity, biculturalism, identity, living
between worlds, cultural dislocation, sisterhood and love. The presence of Kwan in Olivias life
seems to cause problems because of Olivias relationship with and position in a cultural group
to which she belongs by heritage, Asian Americans but American by birth. For Olivia, Kwan
represents ethnicity, a diaspora culture, and racial origins that comprise the visible half of
Olivias genetic inheritance and almost nothing of her cultural bias. Although endowed with
mystical power, Kwan comes with the age-old baggage of Orientalism, evidenced in her pidgin
English and her ludicrous ideas [7, 35]. Kwan is the Other, with an accent and incomplete
English, she wears odd clothes that mark her as an immigrant, and she claims regular
communication with invisible correspondents from an insubstantial existence [6, 140]. Yet
Olivia is totally American except for her Asian features; she dresses fashionably, and she is
rational to a fault and sceptical as well. Although Kwan and Olivia are in contrast to each other
they are sisters; they share a father and a cultural background. In fact, as both sisters narrate
their stories, they find what they have been seeking both individually and culturally. Olivia
finds an integrated self as Chinese-American and Kwan finds peace as Nunumu because Kwan
believed she was the reincarnation of a Chinese peasant who became attached to Miss Banner, a
loose woman obliged to associate with missionaries 100 years ago in China. Miss Banner has
become reincarnated in Olivia, and Yiban, Miss Banners lover, has returned from the world of
yin as Simon, from whom Olivia is attempting to separate herself [4, 1]. Halfway through the
novel, when Kwan, Olivia and Simon set off for China, there are already more than enough
spirits clamouring to be put to rest.[9, 1] There is hope for the future at the end of the novel
and a cycle of birth-death and rebirth, because with Kwan, who is believed to be the
reincarnation of Nunumu, at the end of the novel becomes reincarnated in Olivias and Simons
daughter, Samantha.
The Hundred Secret Senses, a novel of two sisters, two cultures, two lives linked by loyalties
and betrayals, love and loss, life and death, mysteriously interweaves a story spinning out across
two centuries and two continents. At the heart of the novel is the complex and uneasy
relationship between California-born Olivia and her older Chinese-born half-sister, Kwan, who
comes to America when she is eighteen years old. Kwan, daughter of Jack Lee and his first
Chinese wife, is markedly Chinese, whereas, Olivia, daughter of Jack Lee and his second
American wife, is definitely American. Kwan never adapts to the American culture although she
is fond of her American life. Unfortunately, Olivia as a child is frequently annoyed by the
unusual and odd questions her half sister Kwan asks. Kwan never learns to speak fluent English,
but she tries to manoeuvre Olivia into sharing all her secrets. One of the most important secrets
that Kwan shares with Olivia is that she has yin eyes, a term that is employed to explain
Kwans frequent conversations with people who are already dead and who inhabit an
otherworldly existence that she calls the World of Yin. Disturbed by Kwans frequent
communication with ghosts, Olivia never bothers to listen to Kwans ghost stories about yin
people and previous life in nineteenth-century China as Nunumu [6, 114]. Olivia claims that she
does not believe in yin people but she has actually seen a yin person when she was a child. As
an adult, Olivia tries to distance herself from Kwan and her tales but Kwans stories do not
disappear with time. As Kwan approaches her fiftieth birthday her compulsion about yin people
and her life in China increases and, of course, Olivia feels bombarded with more stories because
she wants her sister to remember or recognize her Chinese culture. After seventeen years, Olivia
and Simons marriage starts to crack but Kwan insists that she and her yin friends believe that
Olivia and Simon should delay their divorce plan and work on reconciliation [6, 114]. Finally,
Kwan manages to convince the pair to accompany her to China to visit the village of her
childhood and adolescence. Although the couple at first do not accept to go, on Kwans
insistence and according to the uncomprehending senses, they agree to go. When they arrive in
Kwans village of Changmian they feel like strangers. However, Olivia feels both
unrecognizably strange and disturbingly familiar. In this disorienting setting, Olivia and Simon


Meryem Ayan

are forced to confront the hidden resentments and disguised angers that have destroyed their
The Hundred Secret Senses follows two narrative threads because it has two narrators: Olivia
and Kwan. Olivia searches for an integrated self and Kwan desires to undo the damage of a
century-old mistake and help her half sister formulate her identity. Olivia narrates her own story
and life which is a series of rejections. First her fathers death when she was four makes her feel
abandoned, then her mother, who spends her energy with her boyfriend, and finally Simon, her
husband who never forgets his first love. Olivias life and her interpretation of events are
influenced by these series of rejections. However, Olivias stories are well-chosen and cleverly
constructed, her remarks are intelligent and witty but her voice is self-pitying [6, 122]. The
other major voice and the narrative thread belong to Kwan, who is a strong, memorable voice
notable for its pragmatism as well as for its imagery. Actually, the novel is Olivias story but
Kwan gradually takes over with her distinctive talk story blend of travel narrative, legend,
folktale, wry observation, and misremembered or reconstructed history as she attempts to make
Olivia understand and finally acknowledge that they have a history together that goes back over
a century [6, 122]. Kwan has two distinctive voices. The voice in which she carries on her
everyday conversations is an immigrants, characterized by the use of the Chinese American
patois to negotiate with verve and surety the daily transactions of her life. Kwans other voice
narrates the mythical, legendary and folkloric story in which Kwan believes she was a girl
named Nunumu in the nineteenth century when she claims that she had worked as a servant in a
household of English missionaries. Central to Nunumus life was the story of friendship that
developed between Nunumu and Miss Banner, whose affair with an American general puts the
entire group of foreigners in danger, and whose later love for the half Chinese and half
American interpreter leads to her death as well as that of the faithful Nunumu. Kwans need to
reconcile past and present, and her desire to connect her lives serve as the catalyst for the
revelation of secrets, the articulation of unspoken pain, the reaffirmation of love and the
payment of old debts of loyalty. This story transports Olivia into another world and another
time. Although Kwans immigrant voice irritates Olivia, the poetic voice influences her into
wonder, So which part was her dream, which part was mine? Where did they intersect? [10,
29] In San Francisco, Kwan is likewise marginal because she never legally becomes a part of
the family. And finally, despite decades of life in California, Kwan still has not truly assimilated
into American culture. She retains her Chinese-English speech, continues to live in a Chinatown
neighbourhood, persists in dressing like an immigrant, and still dreams of one day returning to
China [6, 137].
Tan begins her novel in the middle of the action, which is a technique borrowed from the
classical epic [6, 115]. Over a century earlier in China, Kwan had told a lie, fabricating a story
that had the unforeseen effect of disrupting the lives of two people and the romance that began
between them. This story is the history of Kwans previous existence as Nunumu. Kwans
mistake separates Miss Banner and her lover Yiban. At present, Kwan in California devotes her
energies to correct her mistake and unite the lovers. Meanwhile, in the narrative of Olivias
efforts to discover what she wants her life to become, Olivia and Simon already were about to
separate and had agreed to have a divorce. Both Kwan and Olivia tell their stories, but Olivias
narrative is more like an interior monologue and self questioning. Kwans stories, on the other
hand, are clearly addressed to Olivia. Tan employs the juxtaposition of past and present as a
narrative device for her story of the indestructibility of love and loyalty. Past and present are so
closely interrelated that Olivia ultimately admits to being occasionally confused about whether
an event actually occurred or is merely an episode in one of Kwans frequently recounted
stories. Toward the end of the novel, as Olivia and Kwan turn over the contents of the ancient
music box that latter says she hid in a cave more than a hundred years earlier, Olivias logical
mind races from one explanation to another. Always the rational American woman of the 1990s,
Olivia is inclined to doubt what her senses suggest; nevertheless, she cannot dismiss the fact of

Cultural Identity Tapestry in Amy Tans The Hundred Secret Senses


Kwans unflinching candour. Kwan never lies, she says what she thinks is true, but Olivia
thinks believing in Kwans words wound mean believing in yin eyes [10, 320]. Events in the
past actually influence the lives of both Kwan and Olivia and through the flashback technique,
present and past finally collide at the end on the novel, which started with present America,
California and ended with past China, Changmian.
The novel ends with the final juxtaposition of death and rebirth. Early on the morning of
Kwans disappearance, Simon and Olivia make love for the first time in months on the bed that
has belonged to Kwans family for generations. Nine months later, Olivia gives birth to
Samantha, and her favourite toy becomes the music box that Kwan gave Olivia as a wedding
gift. Olivia no longer has Kwan, but in her place there is little Samantha whose presence has
created a new relationship between her parents. Out of Kwans death or disappearance have
come life or visibility and the strengthening of emotional bonds. In other words, Kwans death
has made Olivia and Simon reconcile with their past and accept their present life and identity
that will be further weaved with their baby Samantha whose existence further enlightens the
cultural identity tapestry.
In conclusion, with mind and heart together and the hundred secret senses the forgotten has
been remembered, past and present have been reconciled, self identity has been formulated and
the cultural identity tapestry with memory, customary senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, all
together, and the senses beyond these have been sensed and conceptualized. Thus, with the
hundred senses coming from the depths of the truth hidden in the hearts the cultural identity
tapestry in Amy Tans The Hundred Secret Senses has been weaved.

1 . C h u n , G. H., Of Orphans and Warriors: Inventing Chinese American Culture and Identity, Rutgers
University Press, London, 2002
2 . C u l t u r a l I d e n t i t y , Wikipedia:TheFreeEncyclopedia,
_identity, retrieved on 15 July 2006, 13:33 UTC. 10 August 2006
3 . F e a t h e r s t o n e , M., Undoing Culture: Globalization Postmodernism and Identity, Sage
Publication, London, 1995
4 . F i n l a y s o n , I., Chinese Whispers With Humour, Chinatown News, 3/1/9, Vol.43, Issue 9, p. 38
5 . H o , Wendy, In Her Mothers House: The Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing,
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Oxford, 1999
6 . H u n t l e y , E. D., Amy Tan: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, London, 1998
7 . M a , S., Chinese and Dogs in Amy Tans The Hundred Secret Senses: Ethnicizing the Primitive
la New Age, Melus, Vol. 26, Number 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 29-43
8 . N e i l l , W., Urban Planning and Cultural Identity, Routledge, New York, 2004
9 . P a v e y , R., Spirit Levels, New Statesman & Society, 2/16/96, Vol. 9, Issue 390, p.38
10. T a n , A., The Hundred Secret Senses, Flamingo, London, 1997

Identitatea cultural n romanul lui Amy Tan Cele o sut de

simuri secrete
Cel de-al treilea roman al lui Amy Tan, Cele o sut de simuri secrete, ilustreaz o tem identitar,
punnd n lumin problema transculturalitii. Textul intersecteaz dou istorii : pe de o parte este
prezentat istoria Oliviei, pronunat modelat de valorile americane, precum raionalitatea,
materialismul, pragmatismul, respingerea tradiiilor milenare chineze i, pe de alt parte, este povestit
istoria lui Kwan, modelat de valorile misticismului chinez. De fapt, cele dou istorii subliniaz


Meryem Ayan

diferenele dintre cele dou culturi, cea Occidental i cea Oriental, indicnd modul personal de
raportare la aceste dou paradigme culturale. De aceea prin aceast lucrare dedicat romanului lui Amy
Tan, mi propun s analizez grupurile distincte de personaje din secole i culturi distincte care ne-au
artat diferite modaliti de conceptualizare a identitilor, dincolo de modul tradiional de a percepe
realitatea i de a accede la cunoatere prin intermediul celor cinci simuri.