Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses shows that Olivia was shaped by American values, materialism, self-centeredness, rationality, skepticism, and rejection of the traditional ways of China. The major complicating factor is, of course, the influence of her sister Kwan. Their very names suggest this division, one American, the other Chinese. As much as Olivia wants to throw off forever her ethnic past, Kwan is always there as both sister and surrogate mother to remind her of the roots of which Olivia is ashamed.
Because of her Americanization, Olivia lives a life defined by externals--what other people think of her, how much money she and her husband make, material goods. Her childhood, however, is more contradictory: "For most of my childhood, I had to struggle not to see the world the way Kwan described it. Like her talk about ghosts" (55). Olivia goes on to describe seeing a ghost herself.
Olivia's life before Kwan was indeed fully Americanized: "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" (6-7). All this changed when Kwan entered the picture. It could be argued that Kwan brought with her not only Chinese tradition, but also the possibility of an interior life, however bizarre. The American life of Olivia rests on the surface of life, while Kwan introduces a life beyond appearances.
Olivia is susceptible to Kwan not only because she feels somewhat like an outsider as a Chinese-American, but because she feels unloved by her mother. She calls herself "a lonely kid" (8), and silences her frustrated hope for love "by telling myself that there was nothing inside those hopes anyway" (8). Therefore, when Kwan comes along, as much as Olivia resists and is embarrassed by Kwan, there is still something inside her which responds to the possibility of a special realm behind the surface appearances of Amer...