In “Two Kinds,” the narrator Jing-mei’s character is dynamic, evolving as she goes through life. It is particularly interesting to view the evolution of Jing-mei’s characteristics in the context of her identity as an American woman of Chinese origin. As the story begins, Jing-mei is an affable, agreeable child who wants to make her ambitious mother proud by adopting different persona, from a “Chinese Shirley Temple” to a precocious magician who can find the Queen in any deck of cards, to a piano-playing prodigy. Jing-mei’s mother wants her to be perfect so she can succeed in American society. However, as time goes on, Jing-mei begins to realize that what she wants for herself is very different from her mother’s expectations.
I looked at my reflection, blinking so that I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. She and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts—or rather, thoughts filled with lots of won'ts. I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be what I'm not.
Thus, the conflict between her mother's expectations and her own sense of self begins to form Jing-mei's character traits. From agreeableness, Jing-mei moves to willfulness, a change which is partially informed by her need to distinguish her American identity from her Chinese self. As represented by her mother’s expectations, tradition begins to symbolize a blind obedience, and a stifling of the self for the community, which Jing-mei is now loath to do. Jing-mei begins to resist her mother's expectations to form her unique, individual self, even if it means disappointing her mother by abandoning the piano and not “getting straight A’s.”
However, as she turns thirty and older, Jing-mei’s relationship with her mother improves somewhat, suggesting that Jing-mei needs to find a cathartic way to reconnect with her mother, and by extension holistically reconcile her selves as an American woman and a Chinese daughter.
Visiting her home after her mother’s death, Jing-mei comes across the old piano she was once forced to practice. The piano, symbolic so far of the weight of her mother’s expectations and Jing-mei’s own failures, now gains another meaning. Jing-mei no longer fears the piano, choosing instead to sit in front of it, open its lid and touch the keys.
It sounded even richer that I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano…. I played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me.
Thus, Jing-mei finally grows into “two kinds” of identities, accepting that her American and Chinese selves are a part of each other, much as her mother will always be a part of her, like “two halves of the same song.” Thus, Jing-mei comes full circle, growing into forgiveness and grace.