What symbols are found in the story "Two Kinds" by Amy Tan?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The story “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan portrays a parent and child conflict and generation gap.  The mother of Jing-Mei comes to America after losing her first family in China.  She believes that anything is possible.  Her mother adheres strongly to the old ways.  Jing-Mei was born in America and does not understand her mother at all.  

The mother decides that her daughter can become a piano prodigy.  She hires a teacher in the apartment building where they live to teach her daughter. The mother will clean his apartment if he will give Jing-Mei her lessons.  The little girl figures out quickly that the old teacher is deaf.  She misuses her time and makes him think that she is really practicing although he cannot hear her play.

The mother enters her daughter in a talent show.  Jing-Mei does not learn the song and embarrasses herself and her family when she tries to play in the show. The daughter expects to no longer have to play the piano, but her mother expects her not to give up.  They have a terrible fight:

Mother: Only two kinds of daughters, she shouted in Chinese.  Those who are obedient and those who follows their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!”

Jing-Mei: Then I wish I’d never been born. I wish that I were dead! Like them!

The mother did not mention the piano again. Jing-Mei continued to disappointment her mother.  Her mother appeared to have given up hope in her.

Many years later, the mother offers her the piano.  Jing-Mei does not take it until her mother passes away. Jing-Mei sits down to play the piano and the song that she was to learn for the show.  The song was called “Pleading Child.” On the right side of the page was the other half of the song “Perfectly Contented.”

The songs represent the two parts of Jing-Mei’s personality. Sometimes Jing-Mei understands  and wants to please her mother. At other times, she just wants to have her mother’s attention without any agenda.  Both songs exemplify the kind of person that Jing-Mei had been toward her mother.

The piano symbolizes the mother’s desire to provide a future for her daughter. The mother is convinced that Jing-Mei has a talent that must be encouraged and broadened in order for her to have a strong future without worry. It also represents the deception that Jing-Mei used in making her teacher and her mother believe that she was really trying in her piano lessons.  Actually, she was pretending to practice.

Throughout her life, Jing-Mei had difficulty with schooling, partially because she followed her own will rather than listen to her mother.  When she did not get into the college of her choice, she quit school.  Once the pattern begins of quitting when the going gets tough, this pattern follows in other aspects of life.  

The lost family in China represents to the mother the past that can never be forgotten; yet, the thought of the family makes the mother suffer.  On the other hand, she believes in America and all that it represents.  Her new family must prosper and find happiness in the new place.