Jing-Mei struggles with her attitudes formed from the American culture in which she has been born against her mother's more traditionally Chinese attitudes, as well as the generational gap. Thus, Jing-Mei is engaged in a struggle with her mother over her identity.
Caught between the two cultures, Jing-Mei does not understand why her mother wants her to become "a prodigy." Thus, there are several struggles in which she becomes involved:
- First, her mother wants Jing-Mei to become like Shirley Temple. "But sometimes the prodigy in me became impatient," warning her to learn quickly or it would give up.
- Then, her mother wants her to become a genius. Her mother makes her memorize all sorts of facts and passages from the Bible, and work math problems. When she cannot recall all this information, "something inside me began to die."
- At this point, she starts to rebel, "I won't be what I'm not." She performs "listlessly" pretending to be bored, and her mother begins to lose hope in her for a time.
- After she watches the Ed Sullivan Show, which features people with various talents, the mother buys a piano and signs Jing-Mei up for lessons. She rebels again, insisting that she cannot play the piano.
...I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different, and I learned to play only...the most discordant hymns."
- When she performs badly at a recital, she embarrasses her mother terribly because of her "sour notes" throughout her piece.
- Jing-Mei assumes that she no longer will have to play the piano after her fiasco at the recital. She decides, too, that she "wasn't her slave," and defies her mother by screaming, "No" when asked to play the piano.
- When her mother starts to drag her to the piano, her mother shouts in Chinese that there are only two kinds of daughters, those who follow their own desires, and those who obey; in their home, only an obedient daughter can live, her mother insists. Jing-Mei screams, "Then I wish I weren't your daughter, I wish you weren't my mother." She cruelly adds that she wishes she were dead as were her mother's babies born in China. Stunned, the mother becomes quiet, backing out of the room, "lifeless."
- Later on, Jing-Mei fails her mother by not earning straight As, by not being elected class president, by not getting into Stanford, and by dropping out of college.
It is not until after her mother's death that Jing-Mei understands. Theirs has been a two-part conflict: immigrant to America with first generation born in America.