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Jing-Mei feels the need to rebel throughout the story because her mother, who emigrated to America from China, is unreasonably insistent on trying to fulfill her own hopes and dreams through her only daughter.
Jing-Mei's mother is worldly and competitive, determined to prove that her daughter is better than the daughter of her friend, Lindo Jong. When Jing-Mei is young, her mother decides that she will be a prodigy, because in her eyes, in America, anything is possible. She first believes that Jing-Mei might be "a Chinese Shirley Temple", and takes her to have her hair done in "big fat curls" like the child actress, only to have her daughter emerge "with an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz". Disappointed, she tells Jing-Mei that she looks "like Negro Chinese", and has her hair cut into a Peter Pan bob instead. She then reads about a three-year-old boy "who knew the capitals of all the states and even most of the European countries", and sets about drilling Jing-Mei so that she too might be recognized as an academic prodigy. At first, Jing-Mei is "just as excited as (her) mother" for the chance to become "perfect" so that her parents "would adore (her)", but after meeting with failure after failure, she begins to hate herself. Realizing she will never be what her mother wants her to be, she finally determines that she will no longer let her mother change her; she will not be what she is not.
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