I finished reading Amy Tan’s A Hundred Secret Senses. After 3 false starts – reading, getting to about page 10 or 15 and then life calling me to its umpteen undone things– I woke early yesterday, started before the house woke, stopped to cook, clean, digitally connect with my family and friends, and then stayed up through the night to finish the book and ruminate.
The story opens and immediately discloses the meaning of the title… “My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco”. Now, no reader has a doubt about which of the hundred secret senses this book speaks of or where the story is set. As an impatient person who likes to know the who, what, and where so I can connect the why and how when they come about, getting right to the point is helpful in engaging me in the action of the story.
The book is about past lives and soul ties, about rebirth and reincarnation (which are also senses), about loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice, and about maintaining dignity and decorum. Two half-sisters, Kwan and Olivia, have opposing cultures and personalities. Kwan is the part of the family that her father, Jack Lee, left in China, while Olivia and her brothers are Jack Lee’s family from a new chapter in his life after he immigrated to the U.S. Kwan embodies all the qualities that come with being a peasant from rural China (most Asian cultures): she is loud, food centered, steeped in tradition, superstition and beliefs that are mind-boggling to anyone living outside that cultural boundary. Olivia is a typical city girl–skeptical of anything that isn’t “modern” or rooted in science, cynical when it comes to the emotional aspects of life, and condescending of anything that doesn’t meet her standards of materialism.
Olivia’s family become aware of Kwan only in the dying moments of Jack Lee. Kwan was the wild card no one knew about. Olivia’s mother brings Kwan to the U.S. as part of her promise to her husband. Olivia describes this when she says, “Looking back, I can imagine how my mom must have felt when she first heard this. Another wife? A daughter in China? We were a modern American family. We spoke English. Sure, we ate Chinese food, but take-out, like everyone else…… According to Aunt Betty, at the funeral, my mother vowed never to remarry. She vowed to teach us children to do honour to the Yee family name. She vowed to find my father’s firstborn child, Kwan, and bring her back to the U.S. The last promise was the only one she kept”. Kwan, with her lack of understanding of the English Language and its nuances, her curiosity about everything that is part of city life, and her boundless capacity for optimism in the face of hurtful situations becomes a source of embarrassment for Olivia. But what Kwan lacks in lingua franca and other seeming frailty she makes up for with her astute understanding of human nature, her forgiving personality, and unwavering loyalty to family and friends. Kwan is endearing to me, I want to wrap her in the warmest clothing and hold her safe, ‘cause she is what I would want in an elder sister. She embodies that Safe Haven feeling that everyone should have in their lives.
The timeline weaves back and forth between the missionaries in Manchu China, with its Heavenly King and present day China and San Francisco. In between, Kwan narrates incidents in her own childhood and past life, as bedtime stories to Olivia. Olivia usually dismisses it as imaginative stories, having nothing to do with reality. But her perception changes when a job assignment brings Olivia, who is a photographer, Simon (Olivia’s estranged husband), who is a writer and Kwan, who becomes the interpreter, to China. And all the stories come alive. As Olivia’s perception about the other senses change, the reader becomes aware of the depth of the connections that she and the other characters in the story share. Along the way, we listen to some profound epiphanies that come out of the characters, as they move out of their comfort zones, grow, and learn.
Love – “Love is tricky. It is never mundane or daily. You can never get used to it. You have to walk with it, then let it walk with you. You can never balk. It moves you like the tide. It takes you out to sea, then lays you on the beach again. Today’s struggling pain is the foundation for a certain stride through the heavens. You can run from it but you can never say no. It includes everyone.”
Loyalty – “Libby-ah, do you know what loyalty is?” “What?” “Its like this. If you ask someone to cut off his hand to save you from flying off with the roof, he immediately cuts off both hands to show you he is more than glad to do so.”
Hate– “Then one of Kevin’s friends, a swaggering second-grader whom all the little girls had a crush on, said to me, “Is that dumb Chink your sister? Hey, Olivia, does that mean you’re a dumb Chink too?” I was so flustered I yelled, “She’s not my sister! I hate her! I wish she’d go back to China!” ……
My mother shook her head looking sad. “Olivia,” she said, “we don’t ever hate anyone. ‘Hate’ is a terrible word. It hurts you as much as it hurts others.” Of course, this only made me hate Kwan even more.
Hope – “Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming – well, that’s like saying you can never change your fate. Isn’t that true?”
Priority – “You know, they’re sort of lucky.” “What do you mean?” “You know, the small community, family histories linked for generations, focused on the basics. You need a house, you get your friends to help you slap a few bricks together, no bullshit about qualifying for a loan. Birth and death, love and kids, food and sleep, a home with a view – I mean, what more to you need?” (Simon tells Olivia when he senses her wince at hardship of the village life, on their walk across the Changmian Village)
As I ruminated before sleeping, I thought of how I grew up, straddling two different worlds at all times. One side was very comfortable with the idea of an unseen, all-feeling world, where our ancestors watched over us, where the spirits of the forests, waters, and plants help us; where the air, water, fire, dirt, and smells are messengers between the seen and unseen. The other side knew I would be mocked if I spoke of such things at school or work, or amongst people who weren’t familiar with the region, place, and people I came from. Yet, I was thankful for the culture I grew up in, the unexplainable and intangible was accepted as “the hope for life”, even as we embraced the science and the explanations it offered in understanding the tangible world. I felt humbled by my circumstance of life. I realize why I found Kwan lovable.
I understood and felt sorry for Olivia. Her relationship with her mother seemed to become an underlying principle for all of her relationships, giving it a sense of unfulfillment, a neediness, a sadness, a blocked off path. I feel like the author was playing around with different views of Karma and Reincarnation, making me wonder about my beliefs on the subject. Could it be that all of the familiarity, the joys and hurts that I experience with the people around me, is part of a past life account? Do we ever live our lives in Present-ness I wonder, if we are constantly paying out for our past lives? Do we really undo the kinks in our previous life, if all of this is true? What if it isnt true? Is the sole purpose of the ideas of reincarnation or rebirth, just to stymie our fear of death?
Overall I give this book a 4/5. It is well written…Although I felt like the author, like Paulo Coelho, has a constant theme in her stories (I watched The Joy Luck Club)–A strained relationship with a Mother figure that spills into relationships in other spheres.