The plot of this story, in brief, is that the narrator’s mother has moved from China to the United States and now, raising a daughter in California in the 1950s and 1960s, believes that her child can be a prodigy if she only tries hard. The setting, and indeed the cultural context, are both important because they influence the behavior of both mother and child.
The narrator’s mother is surrounded by images of young children on television showcasing their talent in the community. As a hardworking Chinese woman, she believes that America is a land of opportunity and that her child can achieve anything here. However, her Chinese upbringing means that she expects a level of obedience from her child that an American-born mother might not have expected at that time. So, for a considerable period, the child in the story allows herself to be forced to learn the piano, even though she knows she is not a genius at it.
After she has humiliated herself in public, however, she has a sudden change of attitude. Her Chinese mother expects her simply to return to practicing, but the child has been raised in America, and it means something different to her. Realizing that they are not actually in China, she rebels against her mother and says she will no longer play. While America means endless possibility to her mother, to the child, it has an additional meaning: independence. She has Chinese heritage, but she has been raised in a different society and does not want to bow so absolutely to her mother’s will.