‘Two Kinds’ is a short story by the American author Amy Tan (born 1952), published as part of her book The Joy Luck Club in 1989. The story is about a young American girl born to Chinese parents; her mother pushes her to become a child prodigy, but the daughter resists.
A powerful tale about pushy parents and their children, ‘Two Kinds’ deserves some closer analysis to tease out its meaning and significance. First, though, here’s a quick recap of the story’s plot.
‘Two Kinds’: plot summary
The story is narrated in the first person by a Chinese-American woman, named Jing-mei, who is looking back on her upbringing in the United States. Her parents had emigrated to the US from China in 1949, and the narrator’s mother was convinced that, in America, anyone could become successful, rich, and famous.
She tells her daughter that she can become a child prodigy like the child firm star Shirley Temple, but when her mother takes her to have her hair curled like Temple’s, the result is a disaster and Jing-mei has to have her hair cut short like a boy’s. She longs to become a prodigy because she thinks that will make her perfect; if she fails to become one, she will be nothing.
Her mother next tries to turn Jing-mei into a fiercely intelligent girl who can match the feats of knowledge and memory achieved by other children, but the tests the mother sets her become more and more difficult. She feels bad for disappointing her mother, but when she catches sight of her own reflection in the mirror, she realises how strong she is, and decides to defy her mother, who eventually gives up trying to school her daughter into becoming a genius.
A few months later, her mother sees a Chinese girl playing the piano on the television, and makes her daughter start taking piano lessons. When Jing-mei confronts her mother about this, the mother denies trying to turn her daughter into a genius, claiming she just wants her to be the best she possibly can be. She is taught to play the piano by a retired neighbour, Mr Chong, who is deaf. Because he cannot hear the notes she is playing, the girl doesn’t bother to correct herself when she hits the wrong notes.
She is determined not to commit to it because her mother has pushed it so hard. When her mother enters Jing-mei into a talent competition, Jing-mei decides to sabotage it by not practising and performing badly. However, as she starts playing and hits the wrong notes, she longs for the performance to go well. Afterwards, her mother is ashamed by how badly she has done, and Jing-mei regrets throwing the performance away.
Two days later, however, the mother tries to force Jing-mei into resuming piano lessons. Her mother tells her that there are only ‘two kinds’ of daughters: those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind, and she insists on her daughter being the obedient kind. In response, Jing-mei says she wishes she wasn’t her mother’s daughter, or that she had died at birth like the children her mother had lost back in China. This stuns her mother, who stops trying to force her daughter to learn the piano.
Jing-mei tells us that, in the years that followed, she continually disappointed her mother, because she doesn’t share her view that she could be anything she wanted to be, but instead could ‘only be me’. When the narrator turns thirty, she is surprised when her mother offers to give her the piano as a birthday present. Even after all these years, her mother is convinced her daughter has a natural aptitude for music. Although Jing-mei doesn’t immediately take the piano off her parents, every time she sees it in their living room she feels proud.
At the end of the story, Jing-mei tells us that her mother recently died and she went round to the house to tune the piano. Opening it up, she finds the sheet music for the piece of music, ‘Pleading Child’, she had failed to play at the talent show. She notices that the piece opposite it in the book is called ‘Perfectly Contented’, and realises these are two halves of the same song.
‘Two Kinds’: analysis
‘Two Kinds’ is a story about the relationship between parents and their children, and what motivates a ‘pushy parent’ to encourage (or coerce?) their child into working hard to achieve something. Does the mother in the story have her daughter’s best interests at heart when she tries to make her learn the piano? Where does a parent’s well-meaning desire to see their child succeed spill over into interfering with the child’s desire not to do a particular thing?
These questions are given an extra twist by the fact that the narrator is Chinese-American, born in the US but to parents who have struggled to escape from Communist China (China became a Communist state in 1949, the same year Jing-mei’s parents fled the country, when Chairman Mao seized power) and who clearly believe in the American dream.
Jing-mei, however, does not share the immigrant’s view that America is a land where all dreams can come true, and her aspirations are lower but arguably more realistic: simply to do the best that she can and to be happy.
It is clear that Jing-mei’s mother is motivating her daughter to succeed partly because she wants her to have all the opportunities she never had as a child. She arguably feels it is her duty as a parent to push her daughter to become a prodigy for her own good. But she is also motivated by a desire to feel pride as a parent. Is this pride, however, not merely the happiness derived from seeing one’s child flourishing, but something more personal and even egotistical? She feels she can vicariously enjoy her daughter’s success through her, as though she had somehow won the talent show herself.
This becomes obvious when Jing-mei overhears her mother boasting to a friend, Lindo Jong, about her daughter’s natural talent for music, and she realises that her mother is only making her learn the piano so she can brag to other mothers about how talented her daughter is. It is significant that, after the talent show, Jing-mei is disappointed that her mother doesn’t shout angrily at her when they get home. She wants an opportunity to confront her mother and air her frustration at having to live out her mother’s own fantasies by becoming a child prodigy.
The story’s title, ‘Two Kinds’, is ostensibly explained by the mother’s comment to her daughter that there are two kinds of daughter: obedient and free-thinking. Ironically, her mother has fled a totalitarian state only to set up a petty tyrannical regime in her own home (you can take the girl out of Communism, but …).
Yet Tan’s title ‘Two Kinds’ does itself have two kinds of meaning: it can also refer to the final section of the story, in which Jing-mei discovers the other piece of music from the talent show, and realises – in a moment laden (perhaps too conveniently) with symbolism – that ‘Pleading Child’ is complemented by ‘Perfectly Contented’.
These are the ‘Two Kinds’ of person she has been: she had to struggle slowly through the years as a pleading child longing for independence and the right to choose what she pursued, but now she has reached adulthood, she is indeed perfectly contented, in a way that her mother never could be.
Jing-mei realises that doing your best and making yourself proud is the key to a happy life: trying to win talent shows or outdo other people (or, worse, other people’s children through your own child) is only going to leave you trapped in a perpetual cycle of goal-chasing and ambition-pursuing.
And yet, Amy Tan has Jing-mei point out that the latter was dependent on the former: in order to be fully content as an adult, she had to plead and fight for her own independence while growing up. Her journey mirrors her mother’s, oddly, in that they have both had to struggle out of situations where they were not allowed to be free, but the difference is that Jing-mei embraces her freedom whereas her mother didn’t know what to do with hers.
Instead, she had to live out her own thwarted ambitions through someone who is, now, free to pursue them. Except, of course, Jing-mei doesn’t want them, because they’re not her ambitions. One message of Tan’s ‘Two Kinds’ is that you cannot force someone to be free: they have to embrace it and define it in their own way, otherwise it is not worthy of being called freedom.