One theme in this story has to do with the American Dream. Jing-mei's mother wholeheartedly believes in the American Dream. She pushes her daughter to go out and grab it in any way possible. This story deals with the mother trying to motivate her daughter to become a piano prodigy. The task proves too arduous and forced for the narrator. This is in part because it is a hard instrument to master. But it is also born out of their strenuous relationship and the fact that they are immigrants in America. Beneath these relationships (mother/daughter, Chinese/American), lies the message that the American Dream is illusive and, for some, an illusion.
Jing-mei's mother has sacrificed her own dreams so that her daughter can thrive in the New World. Therefore, she feels a right to choose and push her daughter in the direction she sees fit. But in the process, Jing-mei becomes more independent. This results from her maturation but also from the influence of American culture which is more encouraging of individuality and even rebellion in young people. This creates a cultural conflict and shows how the immigrant experience is more complicated than one would think. This is another message. The immigrant experience is complex and conflicts can manifest in many ways.
At the end of the story, Jing-mei plays the song from her recital, "Pleading Child." She notices a song on the next page called "Perfectly Contented." She concludes, "And after I had played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song." This poetically encapsulates her conflicted relationship with her mother. She loves her mother but can only be happy if she is given the chance to be herself. The mother/daughter relationship has a dual nature here, an ongoing balance between love (the connection) and individuality (free will).