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Jing-mei (June) has mixed feelings about her mother, just as the two parts of the song show a happy child and an unhappy child. The piano represents the barrier between them.
Jing-mei is Chinese American, and the daughter of immigrants. Her mother desperately wants Jing-mei to succeed.
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. .. You could become instantly famous.
Unfortunately, Jing-mei does not seem to have any talents. At first, Jing-mei is just as excited as her mother at figuring out her new talent. She pictures them in her head, trying “each one on for size.” Unfortunately, the novelty wears off and Jing-mei starts to give up.
Jing-mei begins taking piano lessons from a deaf piano teacher who doesn’t realize she isn’t playing right.
… I might have become a good pianist at the young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different…
Jing-mei is supposed to play a piece called “Pleading Child” which is a “simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was” for the recital. This demonstrates how she feels. She does not want to play the piano. She does not want to be a genius or a prodigy. She wants to be who she is. Unfortunately, she can’t tell her mother this.
Her mother is mortified by her poor performance, but she doesn’t give up. June finally explodes, saying she wishes she was not her daughter. This argument is a direct result of the lack of communication between mother and daughter. The piano is just what brings the situation to a crisis.
Later, June realizes that “Pleading Child” and “Contented Child” are two halves of the same song. They both represent her mixed relationship with her mother. She wants to please her mother, but only to a point. She does not want to give up her identity.
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