The primary focus of Amy Tan's short story, "A Pair of Tickets," is Jing-Mei's journey in coming to terms with her Chinese heritage.
At the beginning, there is a "great divide" between Jing-Mei's perceptions of self (an American) and her true heritage (as she comes face-to-face with the half-sisters she has never met) as a woman of Chinese descent.
Of the images presented, the idea of a camera is particularly effective as Jing-Mei records mental images of what she sees as she and her father travel to China after her mother's death. The "pair of tickets" have been paid for and sent so that Jing-Mei and her father can make the trip. All Jing-Mei has to do is be willing to begin her journey.
As they travel, the landscape is very different, though somehow Jing-Mei is nostalgic for this land she has never seen before. All she knows and has left behind in the States to make this trip is at odds with what she sees. Trying to come to terms with these changes is one thing, but finding where she fits into this mysterious and alien landscape presents an even stronger challenge.
Jing-Mei recalls her conversation (at age fifteen) with her mother, when Jing-Mei insisted she was not Chinese:
'Cannot be helped,' my mother said when I was fifteen and had vigorously denied that I had any Chinese whatsoever below my skin...and my Caucasian friends agreed: I was about as Chinese as they were.
'Someday you will see,' said my mother. 'It is in your blood, waiting to be let go.'
Before Jing-Mei arrives in China, the change has begun. In her heart she realizes that perhaps while she had her mother, she did not appreciate her in the way she should have.
When Jing-Mei and her father arrive in Guangzhou, and her father and his great-aunt meet, Jing-Mei observes their delight at being reunited, but she fights the change coming to her:
They are both crying openly, laughing at the same time, and I bite my lip, trying not to cry. I'm afraid to feel their joy.
Jing-Mei starts to use her camera, capturing the images of her experiences in China—the meeting of unknown family members. It is the camera, too, that builds a bridge between the two worlds—where common language may not be found, the images Jing-Mei captures speak instead.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of Jing-Mei's "journey" is when she learns the story of why her mother had to leave her twin baby girls behind in China: as her father starts to recall the details, Jing-Mei insists that he tell her in Chinese.
The use of pictures connects Jing-Mei finally to her sisters. In their faces is captured the image of her mother's face, and in their hands, the picture Jing-Mei had sent them. They hug, with the spirit of their dead mother in their midst, and at this moment, Jing-Mei finally feels Chinese, stating: "After all these years, it can finally be let go."
The reason that the Polaroid picture is so important to the theme of change in the story is that the picture is exposed to the light, but must take time to develop: to become sharp, focused and life-like. The parallel is obvious. Stories of China, even her mother's memories, are pale reminders of the land from which Jing-Mei's parents are from. Being a part of that world and allowing the essence of that land and her people wash over her allows Jing-Mei to fully develop, finding her own sharp focus of her place in the world as a Chinese daughter, and woman.
The tickets are symbolic of Jing-Mei's passage to an unknown aspect of herself.