Jing-mei’s mother strongly believes that Jing-mei can be a prodigy; she is convinced that her talented daughter simply needs to try harder and practice more. Whatever talent Jing-mei possesses and cultivates, however, is not really important to Jing-mei’s mother. What is important is that the girl attains the status of a prodigy. Her mother is compelled to make Jing-mei a prodigy for three reasons: security, “face,” and redemption. Her 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.
Having fled war-torn China with few possessions and no family, Jing-mei’s mother understandably craves security. After immigrating to San Francisco, she works as a housecleaner while raising a daughter with another Chinese immigrant. She sees America as a land of potential. Owning a restaurant means being one’s own boss, answering to no one, and running one’s own business. Being assured of a “good retirement” after working a safe government job means being taken care of during one’s old age. Buying property (and a house!) on credit means ownership without having to pay all at once. Finally, becoming wealthy brings both security and fame.
In Chinese culture, having “face” (mianzi) is important (this educator knows from experience as a Chinese-American born to Chinese immigrants). The concept of having face means maintaining a fine reputation and garnering high respect from peers. Most importantly, one must bring face and honor to one’s own family, especially the parents.
In competition with Lindo Jong, Jing-mei’s mother conflates fame and face. As Waverly gains renown as a child chess prodigy, Jing-mei’s mother is fixated that Jing-mei also become a prodigy. The reason for her obsession, nonetheless, is deeper than a bragging competition with Lindo Jong. Jing-mei’s mother wishes for Jing-mei to bring honor to her and Jing-Mei’s father by being a piano prodigy.
After performing horribly at a talent show to which Jing-mei’s mother invited friends—"including the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs, from the Joy Luck Club”—Jing-mei knows that she has made her parents lose face or brought dishonor to them in front of everyone:
And now I realized how many people were in the audience—the whole world, it seemed. I was aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father as they sat stiffly through the rest of the show.
On a personal level, Jing-mei’s mother not only loses face in public but also loses any hope at redemption on a personal level. After the failed recital, Jing-Mei notes that
my mother's expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything.
Indeed, Jing-mei’s mother also left behind twin baby daughters in China; therefore, she sees Jing-mei as a chance at reaching and reclaiming the unfulfilled promise of the two lost girls. Her twin daughters did not have a chance to reach their potential, so she focuses intense attention on Jing-Mei, whom she believes is not working hard enough. Through attempts to mold Jing-mei into a prodigy (as a Chinese Shirley Temple, a geography whiz, a math phenom), she views her daughter with “raised hopes and failed expectations.” In fact, she tells Jing-mei,
You have natural talent. You could be a genius if you want to … you just not trying.
Jing-Mei’s mother believes that Jing-Mei can be and achieve anything. Jing-mei wonders
why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable. And even worse, I never asked her about what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope?
After their confrontation, in which Jing-mei declares that she wishes she were dead like the twin daughters, her mother crumbles and seems to lose hope. But ultimately, she continues to keep quietly hoping for and having faith in Jing-mei. After all,
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. Things could get better in so many ways.