Jing-mei describes how her mother wanted her to be a "Chinese Shirley Temple," watching the young actress's movies as though they were training films. Shirley Temple was famously cute, with her Kewpie-doll face and her hair in perfect ringlets, tap dancing and singing and winking her eyes with precocious enthusiasm. That Suyuan wants her daughter to be like Shirley Temple tells us a great deal about the pressure Jing-mei would have felt as a child. This makes her mother's hopes seem completely ludicrous and unreasonable, and likely causes us to sympathize with Jing-mei. The fact that she ends up with a haircut that makes her look like "Peter Pan" helps to show that Jing-mei cannot possibly be like Shirley Temple in even the most insignificant way—her hair—let alone in terms of her talent.
The piano becomes a symbol of the conflict between Jing-mei and her mother. Her mother would expect her to practice regularly, even employing a deaf, old piano teacher to instruct her, and Jing-mei would find ways to get out of actually practicing. She felt her mother was trying to change her, while her mother merely wanted to see her work hard at something and do her best. She says that she might have become good, "but [she] was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different, and [she] learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns." She has to admit that she stood in her own way out of misplaced pride. Years later, when her mother offered to give her the piano, Jing-mei was surprised, but it feels more like a peace offering than anything else. Suyuan's continued belief in her daughter's ability to be a genius if she would only try seems touching rather than demanding or disappointed. This symbol and the way it changes throughout the story help to soften Jing-mei's understanding of her mother's feelings, and she recognizes them now as a mother's love rather than a mother's disappointment.