Among 19th Century German composer Robert Schumann’s best known works is his multi-movement Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), movement four of which is titled Bittendes Kind (“Pleading Child”). A “simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was,” Amy Tan’s use of Schumann’s movement is highly symbolic in its application in the context of a story about the immigrant experience combined with generational conflicts that assume greater importance when “old country” traditions clash with “new country” expectations. Tan’s semi-autobiographical story begins with the narrator, Jing-Mei “June” Woo, describing her now-deceased mother’s perception of the United States, to which she had emigrated following the Chinese Revolution of 1949:
“My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.”
Influenced, as apparently many were, by the images of America provided in Hollywood productions, including those featuring child prodigy Shirley Temple, June’s mother, Suyuan, is convinced that her Chinese American daughter can and should aspire to the symbols of success prevalent in American popular culture. At first, June enthusiastically embraces her mother’s vision of success in the New World:
“. . .in the beginning I was just as excited as my mother, maybe even more so. I pictured this prodigy part of me as many different images, and I tried each one on for size. I was a dainty ballerina girl standing by the curtain, waiting to hear the music that would send me floating on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity. I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air.
“In all of my imaginings I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect: My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach.”
As her imperfections become apparent, however, June becomes increasingly disillusioned with her mother’s unrelenting pressure for her to become the model of American success. The greatest manifestation of this emerging conflict between mother and daughter involves Suyuan’s insistence that June take piano lessons, an experiment in cultural refinement to which June does not easily adapt. The piano teacher Suyuan hires to train June is an elderly, deaf former pianist named Mr. Chong, who June derisively but secretly renames “Old Chong.” Old Chong, in preparing June for a piano recital, assigns his student to learn Schumann’s aforementioned composition, which is actually deceptively complicated if one wishes to master it. June, of course, performs terribly at the recital and, in a subsequent explosion between her and her ever-demanding mother, cries out in exasperation that she wished she were dead, just like her mother’s twin baby girls who died in China before Suyuan emigrated. Later, with the advantage of maturity and the absence of her now-deceased mother, June sits down at the piano and, for the first time, seriously considers the composition before her, Schumann’s “Pleading Child.” Only now, June realizes that the facing page is a composition titled “Perfectly Contented,” and that is constitutes the second half a whole that begins with “Pleading Child.” As June describes the revelation at the end of Two Kinds:
“. . .for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was called "Perfectly Contented." I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but with the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. "Pleading Child" was shorter but slower; "Perfectly Contented" was longer but faster. And after I had played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.”
What June has discovered, and the symbolic importance of Schumann’s composition, is that these movements represent a journey through childhood, and that reconciling the conflicts between parental expectations and youthful ambivalence, and learning to live with the realities to which we are presented, is a challenge that many endure and survive.