A young Chinese American woman, Jing-Mei “June” Woo, recalls, after her mother’s death, her mother’s sadness at having left her twin baby girls in China in 1949. June has used her mother’s regret as a weapon in a battle of wills focusing on what her mother wants her to be and what she wants. June wins, leaving her mother, Suyuan, stunned when she says she wishes she were dead like the twins. Although this scene characterizes the common struggle for power between mother and daughter, the story also illustrates the cultural division between an Asian immigrant and her Asian American daughter. These cultural clashes resonate throughout the short story, as does the discordant sound of June’s piano playing.
Wanting her daughter to be an American prodigy, Suyuan Woo epitomizes the mother living through her child. With the American ideal that you can be anything you want, she prepares and coaches June into becoming a Chinese Shirley Temple. June believes in her mother’s dreams for her and admits she was filled with a sense that she would soon become perfect.
She and her mother, who cleans houses for extra money, begin searching through the latest American magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest, for stories of child prodigies. Every evening her mother tests her relentlessly for intellectual prowess, such as knowing all the world capitals and multiplying large numbers in her head. June grows resentful as she sees the disappointment on her mother’s face as she fails to measure up to her expectations.
Discovering a powerful side of herself, June resolves not to become something she is not simply to please her mother. One evening while watching The Ed Sullivan Show on television, her mother sees a young Chinese girl play the piano with great skill. Much to June’s chagrin, her mother strikes up a deal with a retired piano teacher, Mr. Chong, who agrees to give June piano lessons in exchange for weekly housecleanings. June soon discovers that Old Mr. Chong is deaf, like the great composer Ludwig von Beethoven.
Ultimately, June must appear in a talent show to display her great talent. Her mother invites all of her friends from the Joy Luck Club, a group of four Chinese women who meet regularly to play mah-jongg, a parlor game, and socialize. Knowing she is not prepared but somehow thinking that the prodigy in her actually exists, June plays to her surprised and somewhat embarrassed parents. Only her deaf teacher applauds with enthusiasm as she completes a piece from Robert Schumann called “Pleading Child.”
June feels that after her dismal performance, her mother’s dream for her will end. A few days later while she watches television, her mother reminds her that it is time to practice. It is the final showdown between mother and daughter. June tells her mother she will never be a genius or the daughter that her mother wants her to be. Her mother explains that there are only two kinds of daughters: those who are obedient and the ones who follow their own minds. Although her mother thinks she was won by identifying which kind of daughter can live in her house, the daughter, feeling her own power, strikes the final blow by shouting that she wishes she were dead. Suyuan, because she had to leave her young twins for dead on a roadside, while fleeing war-torn China, is profoundly affected by June’s outburst. Painfully, June looks back on this as an unresolved conflict that has followed her into adulthood. She believes that this was the moment that her mother gave up hope for her only daughter’s success, and that she internalized this self-defeating attitude. A few years before her death, her mother offers her the piano for her thirtieth birthday. June accepts, seeing this as a peace offering, a shiny trophy that she has finally won back.
In Two Kinds by Amy Tan we have the theme of hope, identity, rebellion, responsibility, blame, independence and acceptance. Narrated in the first person by a woman called Jing-mei Woo the story is a memory piece and after reading the story the reader realises that Tan may be exploring the theme of hope. Jing-mei’s mother has hopes for her daughter. She wants her to be famous or at least to be a prodigy. She devotes a lot of her energy in trying to make Jing-mei into something that Jing-mei isn’t. Something which would play on the theme of identity. It is also interesting that Jing-mei’s mother believes that once you live in America you can be anything. This may be important as Jing-mei’s mother appears to be chasing the American dream. However she is doing so through Jing-mei. If anything she is living her life vicariously. There is also no doubting that Jing-mei’s mother is a hard working woman however she doesn’t seem to realise that not every child is a prodigy and Jing-mei herself probably understands that she is not a prodigy. Though at times she aspires to be one. Which may be the case for many children. To have the aspirations that they too can be seen to be special or gifted or different from their peers. What child would not like the focus to be placed on them? Particularly if the spotlight placed on them is positive. Each and every child likes to be thought of as special. However the definition for special is different for each parent.
Jing-mei’s mother also appears to be boastful about Jing-mei’s talents. It is not so much that she is proud of Jing-mei’s achievements it is more a case that she wishes to be better than others. Which is understandable considering that she has had a hard life. Losing a husband and children while in China. However there does not seem to be any type of reality check when it comes to Jing-mei’s mother. It is okay to have a child of average ability, which Jing-mei is, however that is not good enough for Jing-mei’s mother. It is as though she wants to distance herself from the pain of her past and the only way she knows how to do that is by forcing Jing-mei into being something she is not. Which again plays on the theme of identity. Jing-mei’s relationship with her mother is strained due to her mother’s wishes that Jing-mei be something that she either is not or will never be.
It is inevitable that Jing-mei is going to rebel against her mother. It is as though she is forced to after her efforts at the talent contest. Jing-mei doesn’t want to accept responsibility for her own actions and the fact that she played badly. She wants her mother to give out to her. To start an argument with her in order that Jing-mei can blame her mother. When the reality is that Jing-mei set the bar too high for herself just like her mother has. It is also interesting that Old Chong is the only one that claps for Jing-mei at the talent contest. His actions show loyalty regardless of how badly Jing-mei played. If anything the talent contest acts as the catalyst for Jing-mei to gain independence from her mother. She knows that she may not be good enough to be a prodigy and the embarrassment that she felt at the talent contest has in some ways shattered her confidence. It is easier for Jing-mei to give up than pursue something that she may not necessarily hit the mark for (a prodigy).
It is also interesting that Jing-mei doesn’t play the piano again. Not till her mother dies. It is possible that her confidence took a sufficient knock that playing the piano became impossible to Jing-mei. It acts as a constant reminder of her own failings. The end of the story is also interesting as Tan appears to be exploring the theme of acceptance. By having Jing-mei play the piano in her parent’s house Tan may be suggesting that despite what had happened when she was a young girl Jing-mei no longer has any ill will towards her mother. The two pieces she plays at the end also act as symbolism. The first piece the ‘Pleading Child’ in many ways mirrors how Jing-mei felt as a child. Pressurised by her mother to be something she wasn’t. While the second piece ‘Perfectly Contented’ suggests exactly that. That Jing-mei is content in her life. She may have had a childhood she did not wish for but she also appears to have found acceptance. Jing-mei knows who she is. Jing-mei’s mother wanted the best for her daughter. Though unfortunately for her Jing-mei was on a different path. Jing-mei was always going to disappoint her mother no matter what she did as a child. In reality the hopes and aspirations that Jing-mei’s mother had for Jing-mei were really her own hopes and aspirations. She was living her life through Jing-mei.
McManus, Dermot. "Two Kinds by Amy Tan." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 11 Oct. 2017. Web.