Explain what the title means in Amy Tan's "Two Kinds."

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Amy Tan writes about her mother and daughter relationship in “Two Kinds.” The story is told with the narrator [Amy Tan] as a mature woman looking back on her childhood.  Her mother was a Chinese immigrant who lost her entire family before coming to America.

The relationship between the young Jing-Mei [Amy Tan’s Chinese name] and her mother was frustrating to both.  The story spans a time when the mother decides that she wants her daughter to be a prodigy in whatever talent she has.  After much discouragement, the mother decides that Amy will take piano lessons and become a great pianist. 

By this time in the prodigy fiasco, Amy begins to think that her mother does not like her as she is. Rebellion and subversion become the means that Amy handles her mother’s insistence on lessons and practice.  She decides that she will no longer cooperate.  Her mother finds a piano teacher in her apartment building and agrees to clean his apartment if he will give Amy piano lessons.

During the lesson, Amy discovers that the old piano teacher is deaf.  Rather than actually try to play, Amy learns some things but most of the time just plays whatever she wants because the teacher cannot hear her. The lessons last for a year before the mother and teacher decide it is time to enter Amy in a talent contest. 

Amy really does not learn the piece that she is supposed to play in the contest.  Trapped, she goes along with the show, hoping and praying naively that a miracle will deliver magic into her fingers with the pressure of an audience. Amy embarrasses herself and her mother by not knowing the selection and just playing lots of wrong notes. Her mother’s reaction was one of complete loss.   

The next day Amy thinks that her piano days were over.  However, her mother tells her to go and practice.  Amy tells her mother “no.”  Her mother yanks her up and places her on the piano bench.  The title of the story comes from the following conversation:

‘You want me to be someone that I’m not!’ I sobbed. ‘I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!’

‘Only two kinds of daughter,’ she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!’

Amy retaliated by telling her mother that she wished that she were not her daughter. She followed up by saying that she wished that she were one of mother’s babies that died in China. After this hurtful comment, her mother immediately released he. That was the end of her mother trying to make Amy a prodigy.

The narrator admits that she disappointed her mother many more times. It always happened that the daughter asserted her own will rather than listening to her mother. She learned that it was not because she could not do things; she did not believe that she was capable. 

When Amy was thirty, her mother gave her the piano.  Her mother told her it had always belonged to her.  After her mother dies, she has the piano tuned and sits down to see if she can still play.  She plays the piece that she did not learn for the recital, “Pleading Child.” Across the page, she finds the other half of the song is called “Perfectly Contented.” The realization comes to her that they are one song—and are a metaphor for the two kinds of daughters and her own life.