“Two Kinds” is the story of Jing-mei, Americanized as June, a child of Chinese immigrants who struggles under her mother’s desire to make her a prodigy.
Jing-mei’s mother wants her to be a prodigy like her friend Waverly, a chess prodigy. She looks for several different talents that Jing-mei might have, including memorizing capitals, studying the Bible, acting, singing, and dancing.
We didn't immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I could be a Chinese Shirley Temple. We'd watch Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films.
Jing-mei’s mother finally decides she should be a piano prodigy, after seeing a nine year old girl playing the piano on television. She hires her neighbor, the retired piano teacher, to teachin Jing-mei lessons in exchange for house cleaning services.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with this arrangement. First of all, Jing-Mei does not want to learn how to play the piano. Second of all, Mr. Chong is deaf and cannot tell if she is playing right or not.
He taught me all these things, and that was how I also learned I could be lazy and get away with mistakes, lots of mistakes. If I hit the wrong notes because I hadn't practiced enough, I never corrected myself, I just kept playing in rhythm
Mr. Chong and Jing-mei’s mother arrange for her to perform in a concert. Unfortunately, Jing-mei has not learned how to play, and does not do well. She thinks her mother will let her quit, but her mother expects her to practice two days later.
Jing-mei is angry and frustrated. She has not told her mother she does not want to do this. She feels like her mother is trying to change her into something she is not. Jing-mei’s mother tells her there are only two kinds of daughters—obedient ones and ones who think for themselves, and only obedient ones can live in her house. Jing-mei explodes, telling her mother she wishes she was dead like the twin babies her mother lost in China. Her mother is so sad she just walks away.
Jing-mei looks back at this incident realizing that she continually disappointed her mother, such as when she dropped out of college. After her mother dies, June returns to the piano and remembers the song, and realizes that she never really understood her mother.
"Two Kinds" is the story of a mother and daughter who are disconnected. As an immigrant, Jing-mei's mother wants her daughter to have the chances she did not have. Jing-mei just wants to live her own life. Only after she is dead does Jing-mei appreciate what her mother was trying to do.