The short story “Two Kinds” explores the contentious relationship between a Chinese mother and her American-born daughter, Jing-mei. After losing two twin girls in war-torn China, the mother rebuilds her life in San Francisco and pushes Jing-mei to attain the American Dream of success. She
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.
Amy Tan uses various symbols throughout the story to represent the mother’s hopes as well as conflicts between and within the characters. For example, a house symbolizes prosperity and ownership. The mother marvels that in America, anyone—even someone without money—has the opportunity to purchase and possess a house, their own home! As a maid, she aspires to have what her clients possess. She
got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned. And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment. She would look through them all, searching for stories about remarkable children.
These magazines further spur her to pressure Jing-mei to strive for fame like the “remarkable children” profiled in them.
Shirley Temple symbolizes American fame. As the country’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple inspires the mother to try to make Jing-mei a Chinese Shirley Temple. To mold Jing-mei into a child prodigy, she and her daughter would study “Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films” for performance and hairstyle ideas. As another flesh-and-blood girl, Shirley Temple is an attainable goal. On the other hand, Jing-mei imagines herself as
the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity … [or] Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air.
Christ and Cinderella symbolize unattainable and fantastical goals for Jing-mei. Interestingly, Jing-mei compares herself to people who are unjustly treated, which she considers herself to be in her relationship with her demanding mother.
The piano also symbolizes fame, as evinced by a little “a proper Chinese” girl who plays the enchanting Anitra's Tanz on the popular television program, the Ed Sullivan Show. Entranced by the young pianist, Jing-mei’s mother decides that her own daughter will play the piano even thought the
family had no piano and we couldn't afford to buy one, let alone reams of sheet music and piano lessons.
The piano represents prestige as well as bragging rights for her mother; after all she would boast competitively about Jing-mei’s supposed skill to a friend whose own daughter is a chess prodigy. Nonetheless, the piano also symbolizes various conflicts: between the mother and Jing-mei, between Jing-mei and ghosts of her twin sisters, and between two sides within Jing-mei.
An obvious conflict is between the mother and Jing-mei: the mother wishes for Jing Mei to be something she is not—a child prodigy. She pushes Jing-mei to practice piano, but Jing-mei rebels, hardly tries, embarrasses the mother by playing poorly in public, and then quits. Jing-mei’s act of rebellion is self-sabotage. Despite outwardly appearing to be the obedient Chinese daughter who practices diligently, Jing-mei admits
I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at the young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different, and I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns.
After her disastrous recital, Jing-mei defies her mother further by quitting the piano:
“You want me to be something that I’m not!” I sobbed. “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!”
“Only two kinds of daughters,” she shouted in Chinese. “Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!”
“Then I wish I weren’t your daughter, I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted.
And that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. “Then I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted. “I wish I were dead! Like them.”
It was as if I had said magic words. Alakazam!—her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.
The piano symbolizes Jing-mei’s mother’s hope and aspirations for her daughters, something she lost when she lost her twin babies. Jing-mei’s rejection of the piano represents the cruel destruction of this hope. The above passage also reveals Jing-mei’s conflict with the idealized images of the twins—she feels that she can never be the perfect, dutiful daughters that they were (or would have been had they survived and grown up).
Eventually, the piano represents forgiveness and reconciliation. The mother gives the piano to Jing-mei for her thirtieth birthday. Her mother does not push Jing-mei to play but seems to offer the instrument as a peace offering. To Jing-mei, the piano was like “a shiny trophy that I had won back.”
Finally, the songs which Jing-mei plays symbolize her two sides—the ideal Chinese daughter she tries to be and her true self. For the unfortunate talent show performance, she plays the song Pleading Child. She describes it as a “moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was.” This song represents her begrudging attempt to please her mother and win her mother’s approval. Later, however, when she reconciles with her late mother, she plays the song Perfectly Contented.
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.
By the end, Jing-mei and her mother have now accepted Jing Mei’s true, flawed self—they are content. Fittingly, both pieces are from Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. Jing-mei’s entire childhood consists of conflicts between herself and her mother as well as between her two sides.