An Essay on Amy Tan’s Novel Saving Fish from Drowning

“These people now so desperate for any kind of hope, saw what they wished to see the signs, the promise. Don’t we all see them? We wait for signs that we will be saved, or protected from future harm. Or endowed with unusual good luck. And often, we find them.” (pg. 266) Life is full of illusions, from how we see ourselves to how we perceive the world around us.

Amy Tan brings the readers into the Asian world of traditions, spirits and Karma. In “Saving Fish from Drowning” the spirit of Bibi Chen, a SanFranscisco socialite, narrates the story of her twelve friends during their vacation and disappearance in China and Burma. Bibi’s sudden death, prior to the scheduled vacation, gives her “The Mind of Others”, a Buddhist term meaning she can hear others true thoughts and feelings. This new ability allows the readers insight into the raw emotions of the twelve friends. As one gets acquainted with each character the very real truth of human emotion and basic need is exposed.

To reflect upon the opening quote, it is within human nature to use illusion to survive. We see what we need to see in order to make it acceptable. The twelve tourists display this when visiting China’s Stone Bell Temple. They are oblivious to the beauty, history and the dangerous laws protecting the sacred land. All they see is a playground in which they act accordingly.

They want to enjoy themselves, live out their modern dreams of what they feel a vacation consists of, while at the same time trampling on the traditions and concerns of the inhabitants of the land. When told they had been cursed, it is humorous to them. It is in the refusal to believe in something unknown to them that bring them on a path of turmoil.

As tradition dictates, it is in a persons best interest to please the Nats (destructive and mischievous spirits when displeased) when passing a shrine. The Americans desire to believe in only what they see fit, causes most of them to deny the Nats even the smallest token. This not only angers the Nats but also the natives. The tourists are unable to see past their materialism and ideals to adapt to their new surroundings.

Burma, who’s name was changed to Myanmar by the government, has strict and unforgiving laws for both citizens and tourists. Any unlawful action, especially speaking out against the government or reporting government action, can be deadly. Should it become deadly, the Myanmar government has ways to cover up their actions. The tourists foolishly feel above the law, being spoiled by American freedom. They had heard the horror stories about Burma’s violent history; the slaughters, the disappearing of officials and entire villages and numerous human rights violations.

The Americans however, believed that was in the past. One can’t blame their naivety alone. The Myanmar government has been well known for masking the truth and quieting citizens with threats of death or the loss of what little rights they have left. The Myanmar government is not fond of Americanism, banning American music and the such. However, the government’s greed allows American tourists to come to Burma. Tourism being their only hope for their countries economic survival.

The Karen tribe, a secret tribe hiding from the Myanmar government, illustrates the human survival tactic of using illusions. This small tribe hides in the depths of uncharted rainforest, with only a hand made bridge connecting them to civilization. For decades they waited the return of their god, which they felt would save them by restoring power to their tribe. Their story begins in the 1800’s, with a slick, card wielding trickster. He takes advantage of the tribes belief in magic and spirits, convincing them that he was a god. After his passing, many missionaries came and went adding a jumble of religious theories to their own.

The Karen tribe firmly believed that the “reincarnated white brother” would return to bring them power after they were stripped of everything by the Myanmar government. It was after watching almost all their loved ones parish by the guns of the Myanmar soldiers that they fled to the rainforest. Only a few of the tribesmen would venture to civilization for work and supplies, lowering and hiding the bridge once passing. These men watched all the tourists entering their country in hopes of finding the true “white brother”.

When Bibi Chen’s friends go to a remote resort, it is there that a member of the Karen Tribe witnesses a young man doing card tricks. He performs all types of magic and carries a book in which the tribesman believes is the book of important things. The tribesman’s desperation to save his tribe from extinction causes him to believe this young man is the “white brother”. After much plotting, the tourists are brought to the rainforest. The American’s believe they are simply touring this beautiful land, but it isn’t long before they are stranded there.

Illusions are revealed for what they are during the tourists trial in the forest. The Karen tribe faces their own reality. Both groups are devastated by the breakdown of their own illusions. The tourists see Burma for what it is, they fear for their own survival and that of the Karen tribe. They question what responsibility they have to the tribe. Through self searching each tourist reevaluates their ethics and materialistic values.

The Karen tribes beliefs are based on illusion. The basis of their beliefs seem so unbelievable and farfetched but one must consider their own illusions; especially ones based on survival. Humans find ways of coping with reality by softening the truth with illusion; just as the tourists convinced themselves that they were stranded accidentally in the rainforest. As the reader becomes intimate with the characters it becomes evident that regardless of faith, status or race, they all lived in some level of illusion.

All of them had a reason for buffing the truth; whether it was to look smarter, advance socially, gain acceptance or money. In time each tourist realized their fa�§ade, seeing their world as a neat little package with them at the core caused them to be blind to the truths around them. As they see through their illusions, they feel a sense of enlightenment. What they chose to do with this new sight is for the reader to discover and interpret.

Saving Fish from Drowning is a tale based on a true story, but as Amy Tan comments in “A Note to the Reader”, “Whether one believes in communication with the dead or not, readers are willing to suspend disbelief when immersed in fiction. We want to believe that the world we have entered through the portals of another’s imagination indeed exists, that the narrator is or has been among us. And so I have written this story as that, fiction inspired by Karen Londegaard’s automatic writings.”

What the reader perceives as truth in this story is at their discretion. The underlying truth throughout Saving Fish From Drowning is that of human nature; how one perceives themselves and the world around them. This novel demonstrates how one reacts to suffering on their part or others, physical or emotional. At what point does an individual drop their shields and see their surroundings as it’s meant to be seen? If the circumstances are beyond their perception of the norm, at what point will an individual give up hope? Does one have the ability to bend their reality in order to survive? And at what cost?

Saving Fish from Drowning is an exceptional portrayal of human emotion and survival. A story of deception and fate. A most addicting novel which awakens the conscious and stirs the senses.

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