What is the theme, or central idea, of "Two Kinds" by Amy Tan?

The main theme of "Two Kinds" by Amy Tan is generational differences. Though Jing-mei and her mother genuinely care for one another, their different cultural backgrounds influence their ideas about success, responsibility, and happiness. Their different expectations of one another ultimately bring young Jing-mei and her mother into conflict.

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The theme, or main idea, of this excerpt from Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club is that parents and children have difficulties understanding one another. Parents want the best for their kids and sometimes parents push their children in ways that the children resent. Children may fail to understand that this is not their parents' attempt to change them but is an effort (perhaps a misguided one) to help them become their best selves. Children want to feel loved by their parents, and sometimes they lack the perspective to understand that their parents push them out of love; children often want to rebel against their parents' expectations in general, and parents can feel hurt and confused by this rebellion when they know that all they want to do is help their children.

Suyuan, Jing-mei's mother, just wants to help her daughter to be as successful as she can be. She believes her daughter could "be a prodigy, too" and become rich and famous. Having lost everything in China, Suyuan places all her hopes in America and in Jing-mei. However, after a while, trying to find what she could be good at, Jing-mei begins to think, "I won't let her change me...I won't be what I'm not." She fights back against her mother, misinterpreting her mother's pushing as attempts to change her. Really, her mother simply wants her to try hard so that Jing-mei can really see what she can do. In the end, when Suyuan offers the adult Jing-mei her old piano, she says,

"You have natural talent. You could be a genius if you want to...You just not trying."...And she was neither angry nor sad. She said it as if announcing a fact that could never be disproved.

It is not until she becomes an adult that Jing-mei really comes to understand her mother's perspective. Her mother pushed her because she believed in her.

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The central theme of "Two Kinds" is the conflict of expectations and culture between mother and daughter. "Two Kinds" is a section of the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan that tells the story of June, her mother, and June's inability to play the piano well.

June struggles against her mother's expectations for two reasons: first, because they are mother and daughter; second, because they have different cultural backgrounds.

The struggle for power between generations of a family is a common theme in literature. In this case, it's represented by piano lessons. Suyuan, June's mother, dreams of her daughter being a famous piano player. For Suyuan, it's a way for June to grow beyond Suyuan's own career, house-cleaning. To June, however, the piano lessons are a way for her to fail her mother. The more disappointed Suyuan is in her progress, the more June resents both her mother and the piano lessons. 

"Two Kinds" also shows the conflict of cultures between the two women. June is an American and Suyuan is Chinese. She moved from China believing in the American ideal that her daughter could be anything—and paired that with the Chinese belief that June should honor her and her wishes over June's own desires. June, on the other hand, doesn't have the same cultural values. She's more interested in becoming an empowered woman with her own desires. 

After she fails at the talent show, June believes that Suyuan won't want her to continue the lessons. She's wrong. It sparks a fight where Suyuan explains that there are two kinds of daughters: the ones who are obedient and the ones who do what they want. June attacks her with the painful memory of the twin Suyuan left for dead in China. June is able to stop the piano lessons and reflects in adulthood that it created a schism between her and Suyuan.

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A central theme in Amy Tan's story is the inevitability of conflict between what our parents want for us and what we want for ourselves. As a young girl, the narrator and her mother agreed that fame and success were highly desirable and quite possibly within her reach. But trial and error and encountering the realization that to excel means total dedication and unrelenting practice led the narrator to understand that she was not being allowed to truly be herself and follow her own genuine interests. The rebelliousness of her teen years solidified in their relationship, and it took many years for the narrator and her mother to offer forgiveness to each other. Ultimately, the daughter needed to take her own path in life, and her mother had to relinquish her own ideas. The piano, the symbol of the breaking point of the narrator's relationship with her mother, finally becomes a treasured possession, a relic of her childhood, but one without negative feelings associated with it. The mother giving the piano to her daughter, and the daughter reconditioning it and playing it for pleasure, represents a resolution of their conflict.

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In "Two Kinds," Amy Tan examines the longing to achieve the American dream and the volatility of mother-daughter relationships. Jing-Mei’s mother yearns for her daughter to live the American dream, even if it is on the mother’s terms. Having lived through unimaginable horrors in her homeland of China, she sees countless opportunities for her daughter. Unfortunately, the mother’s authoritarian tactics eventually drive her daughter away and develop a rift between mother and daughter.

Jing-Mei rebels and attempts to live life on her own terms. She never achieves her mother’s vision of the American dream, but she does create her own life with its trials and tribulations. It is not until after her mother’s death that she realizes it took both her mother’s fortitude and her own initiative to create a full life.

The central idea of “Two Kinds” is Jing-Mei’s journey to discover her identity in spite of her mother’s demands for an obedient daughter who was focused on an idealized image of American prosperity.

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