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Cultural Identity

Essay by   •  May 1, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,849 Words (8 Pages)  •  2,119 Views

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When an author chooses to write a novel, in many cases he or she may write about a deeply personal experience. In doing so, he or she may come to represent something that is much more grand and important than their own life. Such is the case with The Hundred Secret Senses, a novel published in 1995 by Amy Tan. In the novel, Tan tells the story of Olivia, a Chinese-American woman whose life is turned upside-down when her Chinese half-sister Kwan moves to America. Tan draws many elements of the story from her own personal experiences as the daughter of two Chinese immigrants to America. Although this is only a work of fiction, her characterization of Olivia gives a portrait of the life of a Chinese-American and the difficulties a Chinese-American must face. Specifically, she masterfully uses the dynamics of Olivia's relationship with Kwan to represent how many Chinese-Americans struggle to find their own personal identity that is both Chinese and American.

In order to further understand these themes, it is necessary to understand how much Tan's own life coincides with The Hundred Secret Senses. Tan's experiences with her own mother were what shaped many of the elements in the novel. As a Chinese immigrant, Tan's mother was essential in introducing Tan to the struggles of embracing Chinese culture in a country so radically different than China. Tan shows this in Olivia's relationship with her half-sister Kwan. Despite the fact that in the novel Kwan is Olivia's sister, Tan provides ample evidence in interviews that Kwan's character was inspired by Tan's mother. In an interview with The Academy of Achievement, Tan tells that she and her mother would often get into arguments ("A Uniquely Personal Storyteller) in the same manner that Olivia would argue with Kwan. She also tells of her trip to China with her mother which was "the turning point in their relationship" ("A Uniquely Personal Storyteller). This parallels the trip that Kwan takes with Olivia and Simon to Changmiang in the second half of that novel that shapes their relationship into an everlasting bond.

Tan's own experiences not involving her mother are reflected in Olivia's character as well. Olivia attends UC Berkeley, which is the same university where Tan worked upon doctoral linguistics (Wikipedia). Olivia's father died when she was young, just as Tan's father did (Wikipedia). Finally, just as Olivia, Tan is a habitual cigarette smoker ("A Uniquely Personal Storyteller) whose habit clashes with those around her. All of these similarities add authenticity to her portrayal of Olivia, as her character is based upon real experiences. This allows Olivia to become not just a fictional character, but a representation of Tan herself. It is important to keep this in mind when considering The Hundred Secret Senses, as this is what ensures that the novel is a genuine representation of a Chinese-American's cultural plight.

Now that Tan's heavily personal involvement in The Hundred Secret Senses has been established, it is time to delve into the cultural identity crisis that she presents throughout the novel. The main focus of the novel is upon the relationship between the protagonist, Olivia, and Kwan. Although the two are half-sisters, Kwan is Olivia's elder by twelve years, which has a noticeable effect upon their relationship. Because Olivia has a distant and sometimes uncaring biological mother, throughout the novel Kwan acts more as her mother than she does as her sister. Kwan is the one that does Olivia's laundry, cooks dinner for her, and is there to listen to her (even when she doesn't feel like talking). This almost motherly relationship is undoubtedly the foundation of Olivia's identity struggles, for without Kwan in her life there would be nothing to hold her to her Chinese heritage.

At the beginning of the story, Olivia is as American as possible: "We were a modern American family... We lived in a ranch-style house in Daly City. My father worked for the Government Accounting Office. My mother went to PTA meetings" (Tan, 6). Because she has no true connection to Chinese culture, she is heavily invested in the dominant American way of life. She retains this way of thinking long throughout the novel. As is typical of Americans, she is concerned with what goes on around her than inside her. She cares about how much money she makes, what possessions she owns, and what others around her think of her. With this external way of thinking comes the American perception of Chinese culture. When she learns of Kwan, she expects her to be like a movie star: elegant and waif-thin (9). However, when she meets Kwan and realizes that she is nothing like both her expectations and the American stereotype of a Chinese woman, she rejects Kwan, as to her Kwan is a cultural outsider. Americans often reject what is foreign to them, in hopes of fitting in. In doing so, she not only shows how she has adopted American culture, but also rejects both Kwan and the Chinese facet of her own identity.

Olivia's rejection of both Kwan and her Chinese culture is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Early in the novel, Olivia is chastised for her relationship to Kwan. A young boy asks "Is that dumb Chink your sister? Hey, Olivia, does that mean you're a dumb Chink too?" (12), to which she responds "She's not my sister! I hate her! I wish she'd go back to China!" (12). This passage is exemplary of why Olivia rejects Kwan. The idea of being treated as an outsider like Kwan threatens Olivia's feelings of being accepted in her society, which is what

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