Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism, Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 1996.
At the beginning of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses, we observe what I wish to define as a partial or total discharge of ethnicity on the part of a Chinese American character. The word "discharge" is used in this sense to refer to the idea of the release of a burden of a particular kind. In this sense, the burden is connected with the psychological condition of belonging to a minority group, something which appears at times to be felt as an encumbrance, as something undesirable, as a traumatic experience. A major part of the novel is thus devoted to the reflection of the role of ethnicity in the life and choices of the narrator, as she is often forced to face this question and make decisions that have to take the question of her Chinese and American heritages into account. More specifically, the narrative will center on the character of the narrator's half-sister, Kwan, and the drama of ethnicity and identity this person will occasion. As a European professor, I find the presentation of ethnicity in this novel proves an interesting exercise in the understanding of the problems and paradigms in Asian American literature in general. In this paper, I wish to begin a discussion on the manner in which Tan presents the diverse characters in the novel which clearly invites a comparative analysis and a revelation of possible attitudes and modes of defining and living with ethnicity.
The narrator of The Hundred Secret Senses is inclined to consider herself simply American. But she goes on to inform readers that, like her brothers, she was born in San Francisco from one Chinese parent. After the death of his Chinese wife in 1948, her father had left for Hong Kong in search of work and, a year later, in 1949, "immigrated here and married (her) mother Louise Kenfield" (3). He died when the narrator was four. With a Chinese father and a mother probably identifiable as Anglo, in the writer's own terminology, the narrator feels no particular sense of either dependence or allegiance towards any specific ethnic group. Intermarriage among the descendants of immigrants of different origin has intervened to alter in a permanent way the monoculturality of the immigrant's situation, the nonheterogeneous ethnicity of Chinatown. What we are invited to reflect on is the presentation of a contemporary American society characterized by the welding of different cultural and biological traits, the dissipation of the original unmixed cultural features which distinguished the Chinese immigrant, the prevalence of what might be called the American way in all aspects of life - in a word, a thorough Americanization of all ethnic components. The American way of life prevails apparently undisturbed with its network of public services, social activities, popular habits, aspirations, brands of modernity, freeways and rush hours. The American family and all that implies appears to prevail as the common denominator of all experience.
Further considerations along this vein may be made with regards to Olivia, the narrator of The Hundred Secret Senses, and on her family. In the very first page of the novel the narrator's mother is quoted as describing in culinary jargon the mixture of races which occurred within her blood as "mixed grille" (3), and glorifying mixed marriages. A model to which she wishes to conform is Louise Rainer, who played the part of O-lan in The Good Earth (3): it may be noted that she prefers the idea of being an American with Asian glamour rather than Chinese with Western charm. The mention of Pearl Buck's once very popular novel, be it said incidentally, seems particularly interesting because it may be seen as the indication of a point of departure in intercontinental cultural and literary interactions. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1938, Buck declared that, in her process of formation as a writer, she owed as much to the Chinese narrative tradition as to she did to those of her own country.
We understand that Louise's childhood and upbringing had little to do with either the inhabitants of an American Chinatown or, directly, with China itself. This woman's married life is presented as varied, and as anybody would say, "normally American," with importance attributed to significant others, an often light-hearted succession of husbands and love affairs, the cessation of which is never accompanied by excesses of dramatization as occurs in traditional societies, but rather by new energy and hope. Referring to the brief marriage with her first husband, she says, in her enthusiasm, that she intermarried at a time in which it was forbidden by law, a notion that Olivia wryly observes is a lie because in reality, those laws didn't apply in California (3). What counts is Louise's enthusiasm for what she considers emancipated behavior. Both this woman's second husband and succeeding boyfriends belong to ethnic groups different from that of Olivia's father. Some of their names might be identified as originally Indian, such as Bharat Singh (98), or Iranian, as Sharam Shirazi - a man she met "at an advanced salsa dance class" (121). Also the mention of the salsa dance class illustrates the fact that ethnic barriers have been crossed in all directions through a kind of international cultural surfing, or better dancing, devoid of excessive emotional overtones. Apart from the narrator's father we are not told of any other Chinese husbands or boyfriends that Louise Kenfield might have had. We are only informed of the fact that before Sharam Shirazi, she had gone out with a Samoan (121). So the reader is led to the conclusion that her first marriage with a Chinese might have even been a mere accident. Her shifting from one love affair to the other has nothing particularly remarkable in it.
Among her most permanent partners we count an Italian, Laguni by name, in the function of the most serious of second husbands, who was once mistaken for a Mexican (8) and whose later career as former husband, although sparsely mentioned, we may follow from the first page of the novel to the last. He is sometimes referred to as Daddy Bob, and his influence on the family does leave a mark. The narrator comments that "my brothers look almost as Italian as their last name implies. Their faces are more angular than mine. Their hair has a slight curl and is a lighter shade of brown" (39). We will even find an explanation regarding the origin of the surname Laguni according to which it was "a made-up name that nuns gave to orphans" (141) in Northern Italy. Together with the Jews, the Italians are probably the most frequently mentioned minority with whom most of the characters are vaguely associated. In one passage Bob Laguni is described as having a big nose, something which would appear not particularly relevant if we were not acquainted with the fact that the Chinese have a way - among many - of speaking of foreigners with a certain amount of scorn as of people who have big noses (ta pi ze). Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior is more explicit than Amy Tan when she writes that "an orange creature with a great nose was a barbarian from the West" (8). Furthermore, "barbarian from the West" is a common way of referring to foreigners. Familiarity with colloquial Chinese may help the reader to capture meanings which would otherwise pass unnoticed; further on, I will point out another quite interesting instance of this practice on the part of the narrator.
One of the conclusions which we may reach through a close reading of the first part of the novel, which is set in the United States (the setting of the second half is China), is that the writer refuses all ethnic seclusion and exclusion in favor of intermarriage, cultural hybridization, amalgamation and the routines of the mainstream American family. We might coin the neologism desinization and apply it to most of the characters. In Tan's narrative we even find, besides the word hybridization, the less felicitous mongrelization, the result of the crossing of different ethnicities and cultures. It is posed both as a common practice and a goal and even recommended as a "long-term answer to racism" (59).
It is interesting to note that, as with her mother, Olivia's love affairs only occur with non-Chinese Americans. Simon, first her husband and later a former husband, with certain privileges of familiarity and even affection, knows little or nothing about Chinese Americans or China before the couple's adventurous intercontinental expedition to a strangely outlandish and mysterious China. During this visit, both he and his former wife will feel and behave as foreigners, newcomers, American tourists, photographers, reporters of an alien reality - at times, almost, as visitors from another planet. In The Hundred Secret Senses Simon is introduced as "a perfectly balanced blend, half Hawaiian-Chinese half Anglo, a fusion of different racial genes and not a dilution" (59), a notation which may even be read as a prescription. We understand that "dilution" is contrasted to "balanced blend," a more praiseworthy process which may leave all component elements recognizable and appreciable both in their singularity and in their fusion. Also, the fact that Simon is Hawaiian-Chinese and not American Chinese makes things more varied, implying all kinds of seclusion of ethnic groups in the urban village, totally disputable and carefully avoided. Simon has not much to do with the concomitants of a mother-in-law's Chinatown family, business and mentality. Having no Chinese American mother-in-law, as some of the characters in Amy Tan's other novels, he may, at least before his grand tour to China, be free from all problems arising out of complicated family relations, deep-seated secrets, engagements and funeral ceremonies, performed in strident contrast to mainstream American behavior. Moreover, his former girlfriend was the daughter of Polish Jews who changed her name from the "Elsie" given to her by her adoptive parents to the more European "Elza" (64). Later on, we are informed that Elza's parents had been at Auschwitz (65). She, too, is connected with Italy. She visits the Etruscan tombs scattered in the Italian territory (39) and sends postcards from the country. Italy and the Jews frequently recur in the narrative in very subtle ways. As in other American novels they may perhaps act as discharges of ethnic tension by means of projection and assimilation.
But how, we may ask, does the writer maintain what can be called the status of Chinese American character while discharging ethnicity? It is important to discover and analyze how such an outstanding piece of fiction as The Hundred Secret Senses was created, what kind of intelligent device or set of devices was used in its composition, and how, after what we signaled as one of the main features of the novel - hybridization - can we explain and justify the copious reference to China in the narrative. The answer may probably be that what always appears to be a carefully structured novel, exhibits something which we would like to define as a presiding fictional arrangement, a most important literary contrivance; a Chinese trick, it might even be called, which helps to make the novel a real masterpiece laden with remarkable cultural and social implications. This trick consists in the projection of a "pure" ethnicity, at its utmost level of concentration, on the only character that the narrator seems to want to acknowledge it in, a real foreign national. In this case, the ethnicity is embodied specifically in a Chinese woman endowed with the peculiar traits resonant of the personage which, particularly in the Elizabethan drama, was termed as the fool. Since the first pages of the novel, the reader has to deal with what appears to be both a true Chinese female character of exceptional power and a fool. The character named Kwan stands for both and for many things more.
What in this novel appears as really memorable is the character of an unmixed, non-integrated, American-resistant, Chinese young woman, imported into the United States for purely humanitarian reasons, who always performs in ways which show her as absolutely incapable of assimilation, integration, and cultural hybridization. Far from losing her well-marked Chinese identity in favor of more modern attitudes, she is even capable of imposing her "chinoiserie", (in Olivia's eyes) or what might perhaps be termed her "profound ethos", her apparently extravagant and esoteric theories and practices, on everybody around, from her half-sister, to the whole of her father's American family, to all the people with whom she happens to have a contact both in the American environment and in the territory of China. Quoting Anne McClintock, she may be seen as the carrier of "alternative female power" (3). Kwan entertains alternative notions of time and knowledge. Her most more profound opinions and convictions seem to regard the underworld of yin and reincarnation which are always intermingled with China's often unfortunate relationship with the West. Her weltenschauung derives from a traditional way of looking at humanity, characteristic of ancient societies in general, from which life in the United States totally diverges.
Kwan's logic and understanding have their source in a culture distant in time and space. Hers is the self-reliance of those who have never seriously exposed themselves to any kind of intercultural conflict. She neither loses her individuality nor the perceptions provided by what she calls her hundred secret senses, by her special insights into what we are led to see as the inner workings of life, by a familiarity with the world of the dead, and also by her unique sense of humor. Her introduction to the yin world is very often amusing, probably another sign of human superiority. She never takes things too seriously. She jokingly says, for instance, that "Also people who miss Chinese food, they go yin world wait there. Later can be born into other person" (89). Reincarnation is dealt with at length in the novel, coming to occupy one of the central themes of Kwan's life and stories.
One certainty the reader acquires about Kwan is that she neither represents the world of acquisition, profit and wealth nor that of the subjection of women in ancient Asiatic societies. Although having nothing to do with powerful ancient matron figures, she moves beyond the dimension of inferiority. Interestingly, Kwan is sacrificed in the end of the novel in order to allow the survival of the other characters. But her presence poses the problem of why, in the economy of the book, is she so necessary?
In the formulation of the character of Kwan, the writer has developed the potentialities of one of Maxine Hong Kingston's female figures in The Woman Warrior. In that emblematic novel, we encounter another unforgettable narrator's aunt, Moon Orchid, another fool we might say, who starts to behave and speak crazily as soon as she lands at the San Francisco airport. One of her first observations about the Chinese Americans living in Chinatown is that the Americans and Chinese speak the same language. Moon Orchid may also be said to be America-resistant. But differently from her, Chinese Kwan is not a secondary character, the producer and victim of occasional states of craziness and utter maladjustment. Being an exceptional cultural carrier, Kwan always overflows with words, memories, considerations, producing discourse throughout the length of the novel. This may be one of the rare cases of the fool serving as a main character and absorbing most of the reader's attention. And never had a fool had such a chance of expounding fearful truths, of implicitly and explicitly criticizing, of explaining her surprising ways of perceiving reality, of penetrating into space and time, of moving with deftness from the present century back to the previous one, from one era to the next.
While a resident of the United States, she is the exceptional misfit, uncomprehending and incomprehensible, expressing herself in funny broken English. But in China her talk is smooth, even eloquent. At the beginning of her American sojourn she is sent to mental hospital only because the people around her are not accustomed to hearing the things she says, nor do they share her sensibility. But she does not care. She never feels offended. When in China, in the company of the narrator and her former husband, she turns out to be the most profound interpreter of Chinese life, and even of the historical memory of China. She is transformed into a historian, the only person who is well adjusted to both past and present, to poverty and mystery, to the ways of the living and of the dead. In the second part of the novel Kwan comes to function as a sort of medicine woman with a shaman's powers. As in the case of masters, she explains things which the others are required to understand, she opens up new and old worlds, reveals secrets. What is always clear is that having never become Chinese American while living in the United States, she will reaffirm her full and true Chinese identity when she returns to China.
The narrator, on her part, will remain and reaffirm her being American. In China, Olivia will always be the foreign photographer, the reporter, the tourist, the stranger, the outsider, the alien American woman, an American divorcee still psychologically involved with her former husband, full of resentments, fears and regrets, ever on the point of losing herself in the most exotic of adventures abroad. She turns out to be always fascinated by the exotic natural landscapes, by the acculturation daily provided by her half-sister, and by the exceptional character of the information she receives. But, we as readers, may ask why the narrator decided to embark on that adventure, and what may be the purpose of that attempt towards acculturation to Chinese ways?
Something different may perhaps be observed at this point. The Chinese territory which the narrator presents may be said to be "oriental" in the old, British Empire manner that Edward Said has highly criticized. What for the international reader was always typical of the exotic Indian landscape is here applied to China. This representation of China is that of a strangely hyperexoticized country, distant from civilization. In certain passages we may be reminded of Indian exoticism produced by writers such as Kipling or Forster or of ancient Chinese stories such as the Story of Monkey or the Dream of the Red Chamber, with their abundance of fabulous invention and atmosphere. Far from being depicted as a familiar country, a pacific motherland, a peaceful ancestral cradle, Amy Tan's China in this novel turns out to be, in a possible inversion of all Orientalism, the most conventional of Eastern settings. We are taken to isolated, formerly unvisited places, where are ravines with caves occupied by bats, where the wind howls eerily, where one may lose the sense of gravity, where some people may get temporarily lost while others will be lost forever.
And as all visitors of strange countries try to support their troubled souls with remembrances of what they have left at home, it may be said of them that it is as though they really psychologically never left home (see Unali 1993). The narrator is reminded of a brochure she and her husband wrote on a special effect that the wind performs in the corridors formed by the skyscrapers of Manhattan. She uses the word Manhattanization which sounds similar to Americanization and hybridization. We are taken to caves which remind us of the Marabar caves in Forster's famous novel. We find all the most famous incidents of an oriental journey, including the disappearance of one of the characters as in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, the Western prototype of all "oriental" literary adventures.
An analysis of the novel brings to light perhaps more questions than answers, and invites to a discussion of the themes we have begun to bring up. Why is that extraordinary experience in China used? Why is Simon's "sterility" healed after a sojourn in a distant country in which only one of his ancestors was born? What is the meaning of this new fertility? Perhaps a new approach is needed. Did it offer only superficial solutions to the abandonment of overripe 'Oriental' cultures (Wong, 6)? Is re-acculturation to Chinese culture felt as necessary at least from the point of view of literary creation? Is a discharge of ethnicity necessary or recommendable? Which are the ways in which it may safely occur?
My answers may differ from those of others. I agree with what may be observed in Tan's novel, which highlights a tendency towards inclusion and limitation of loss, against cultural void, in favor of the characters freely following intellectual and cultural drives, and in the direction of change. What, in my opinion, makes this and many other novels by Chinese American writers really extraordinary is what I wish to define as progressive memory: not simply a memory of a dead past and of dead things, not stagnation, but the presentation of the healing of a trauma rather than the simply a contemplation of foreign territories. The fictional presence of Kwan aptly represents that trauma and that past, but points hopefully to the future. It is another way of revealing how a process of hybridization and Americanization may have occurred.
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