“Two Kinds” by Amy Tan explores her own relationship with her Chinese immigrant mother. The story is told as a flashback with the adult Jing-mei looking back at the beginning of her problems with her mother.
Tan’s mother had come to America in 1949 after she lost her entire family. Her mother never looked back at this painful time because she believed in her life in America. She remarried and had Amy with her second husband.
Tan knew her mother’s story. Her mother believed that a person could be anything she wanted to be in America. Jing-mei's mother believed the same thing. In many ways, the story harks back to Tan's own upbringing.
Her mother decided that Jing-mei could be a prodigy in some area. She began by trying to make her into a Chinese Shirley Temple. But she did not have the right kind of hair for it. Initially, Jing-mei liked the idea of being a prodigy. She understood that if she became perfect that her parents would love and adore her.
Her personality’s traits are illustrated throughout the story:
Jing-mei tires of her mother trying to make her into something that she is not. She asks her mother why she is not happy with her. Her mother slaps her and tells that she is ungrateful.
Eventually, her mother decides that she should become a pianist prodigy. She hires a retired piano teacher and a piano on which to practice in her apartment. The teacher will give Jing-mei lessons and the mother will clean his house for him in return.
Her revenge is to take advantage of her piano lessons. Jing-mei was clever and immediately understood why the piano teacher had retired. He was completely deaf. She tried sometimes, but other times she would make him think that she was practicing. Really, she was just playing whatever came into her head.
After a year of abusing the piano lessons, the teacher and mother decided that she should enter a talent contest. She did not learn the piece; however, she did practice the curtsey at the end.
When Jing-mei began to play at the contest, her performance was ridiculous. Her mother was embarrassed. Jing-mei figured that she was done with piano lessons. The next day her mother told her to practice.
Jing-mei tells her mother that she will not play the piano anymore.
Her mother yanks her up by her arm and puts her on the piano bench.
Her mother tells her that there are only two kinds of daughters: one who obeys and one who does not. Only one kind could live in her house: an obedient daughter.
Jing-mei lashes back angrily:
Then I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother. I wish I’d never been born. I wish I were dead! Like them!
Referring to her mother's twin daughters that were killed in China, Jing-mei struck a chord with her mother, who turned and left the room. Piano lessons were never mentioned again.
As she grew up, Jing-mei admits that she sometimes did not do well on tests or other things because she wanted to hurt her mother. She disappointed her mother frequently.
When she was thirty, her mother gave her the piano. The mother told her it belonged to her and said that she had natural talent and could have been a genius if she had wanted to be.
After her mother died, Jing-mei had the piano tuned. She sat down to see if she could still play. She played the song for her contest easily, noticing that its name was “Pleading Child” and the opposite page was the other half of the song, “Perfectly Contented.” She understood that this song was the two halves of the song and also represented life with her mother.