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Jing-mei’s mother’s motivation comes from her desire for her daughter to have a better life in America.
There are clues throughout the story that Jing-mei’s mother had high hopes for America, and pinned those hopes on her daughter. First of all, notice that this story begins with Jing-mei describing the mythical importance of America to her mother.
My mother 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.
America is the promise land. Jing-mei’s mother is an immigrant. She gave up everything to come to America from China. America was supposed to be a fresh start, and a better future. She places that hope squarely on the shoulders of her daughter.
The fact that she wants her daughter to be a prodigy, or a very special success from a young age, is not just because they are in America. Jing-mei gives us another clue when she mentions the daughters that her mother left behind in China.
America was where all my mother's hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret.
She may have never looked back with regret, but she did look forward to the future. Jing-mei was the future. She had to leave those two girls behind, so Jing-mei had to make up for them. She had to make up for the daughters that her mother gave up. It doesn’t make sense on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level it does. Her mother pushed her out of a sense of loss.
It was a terrible burden for a young girl. Jing-mei finally snaps because of it, and uses those same daughters to throw back in her mother’s face. Who can live up to such idolatry? When her mother tells her that there are only “two kinds of daughters,” the ones who are obedient and the ones who “follow their own mind,” and she will only accept the former, she explodes. She realizes that her mother is angry, and decides to make her really angry.
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."
Instead of making her mother angry, she makes her stunned and “lifeless.” She has brought back her mother’s deepest hurt and fear, and used it against her in a petty feud.
Jing-mei’s mother didn’t really want her daughter to be spineless. Being strong is necessary. She did, however, want her to be obedient to her will. She wanted her to follow along with the plan. Jing-mei did, at first. She bought into the vision, but never completely. She didn’t have the drive that her mother had, because she never had to work as hard as her mother did. She already had the advantages of being born in America.
This story tells us a timeless tale of mothers and daughters. Regardless of the culture, this battle has been fought generation after generation in a multitude of ways. When you add the twist of a first generation immigrant daughter trying to communicate with her mother, the story gets more complex and meaningful. Sometimes the generation gap can grow to a chasm very quickly.
The mother’s motivation for urging her daughter to excel emanates from her belief that America presents better opportunities for her to become whatever she wants to be. This is because she was a Chinese immigrant, who escaped her home country as a result of war, and leaving her twin daughters on the road side presumably dead. This situation increased her odds and disrupted her life but not that of her surviving child, who according to her, was in a far better country presenting a better chance for success. In her attempt to achieve success, the mother works hard to mold her daughter into a child prodigy, like what she has seen on the television or read in the magazines. The mother also wants an opportunity to show off her daughter’s achievements before her friends to bolster her own self image. This brings friction between mother and child due to competing interests.
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