Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses certainly lives true to its title – its narratives, cultural mix of languages and melting pot of characters, both past and present elicited in me such a rich explosion of senses and emotions I never realised could exist at the same time before. It is a curious feeling to both chuckle and weep in the same moment, to feel the flash of irritation as quickly as the warmth of sympathy, to be puzzled and yet enchanted by the confusing web of storytelling weaved into the narrative. This book may have been written from a young American Chinese girl’s (Olivia) perspective, but what brought the story life was really her Chinese American older sister’s (Kwan) recounts of her earlier life in China, and a past life before their current ones. Read it, and allow your senses to be enthralled.
As a teaser, let me leave you with some of my favourite quotes:
“Maybe too many opinions is an American custom. I think Chinese people don’t like to have different opinions at the same time. We believe one thing, we stick to it for one hundred years, five hundred years. Less confusion that way. Of course I’m not saying that Chinese people never change their minds, not so. We can change if there’s a good reason. I’m just saying we don’t change back and forth, right and left, whenever we like, just to be interesting.
“Actually, maybe today, Chinese people are changing too much, whichever way the money is blowing, that’s the direction they’ll chase.
” … In China today people grow more capitalist ideas than pigs. They don’t remember when capitalism was the number one enemy. Short memory, big profits.
“… Americans have short memory too, I think. No respect for history, only what’s popular.”
On faith and hope and dreams:
“I prayed to God to save my brothers. I prayed for him to spare my mother. I prayed that my father would come back to me. Religion teaches you that faith takes care of hope. All my hopes are gone, so why do I need faith anymore?”
“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?”
“You can’t stop people from wishing. They can’t help trying. As long as they can see the sky, they’ll always want to go as high as they can.”
“I remember an argument we once had, in which I said you couldn’t compare your happiness with someone else’s unhappiness… Now as I watch these people waving at us to stop, I feel lucky I’m not in earwax removal. Yet I’m also afraid that the core of my being, stripped of its mail-order trappings, is no different from that of the tenth person who stands on the road wishing for someone to stop and single her out.”
“Sweet love didn’t last, and it was too hard to find. But rotten love! – there was plenty to fill the hollow. So that’s what she grew accustomed to, and that’s what she took as soon as it came back.”
“With Simon, I laughed harder, thought more deeply, felt more passionately about life beyond my own cubbyhole. We could volley ideas back and forth like tennis pros. We wrestled with each others’ minds. We unearthed each others’ past with psychoanalytic gusto. I thought it was eerie how much we had in common.”
“…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 towards knowing what is true. I once thought love was supposed to be nothing but bliss. I now know it is also worry and grief, hope and trust. And 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. “