Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
Old Chong: Jing-mei’s deaf piano teacher
This story is narrated by the adult Jing-mei looking back on her childhood piano lessons.
When Jing-mei is nine, Suyuan wants her to be a prodigy like Lindo’s daughter and Shirley Temple. Jing-mei at first agrees, but after repeatedly failing to find her special talent, she quits trying.
A few months later Suyuan notices a young Chinese girl playing piano on The Ed Sullivan Show. Three days afterward she announces that she has made arrangements for Jing-mei to take piano lessons from Mr. Chong. Jing-mei quickly discovers he can’t tell when she is making mistakes because he is deaf. As long as she maintains the right tempo, “Old Chong” thinks she is doing well.
The adult Jing-mei interrupts here to observe, “Maybe I never really gave myself a chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was…determined not to try.”
After about a year of half-hearted effort, Jing-mei enters a talent competition. Instead of memorizing the music in preparation, however, she practices her fancy curtsy. The night of the recital, in front of an audience that includes all the Joy Luck Club aunties and uncles, Jing-mei plays very badly. She gets the fancy curtsy right, but the audience is silent, except for Old Chong, who shouts, “Bravo! Bravo! Well done!” Jing-mei sees Suyuan’s “stricken face” in the audience and tries not to cry as she sits down, ashamed.
She thinks her piano lessons are behind her, but the next afternoon, Suyuan reminds her it’s time to practice. When she refuses, they argue. Jing-mei shouts that she wishes she weren’t Suyuan’s daughter. She wishes she were dead, like Suyuan’s two daughters in China. Suyuan, stunned, leaves the room. The piano lessons are over.
The adult Jing-mei comments that she disappointed her mother again and again in later years when she insisted on the right to be less than her best. She finds her old recital piece in the piano bench and begins to play it. Then she notices the piece on the page opposite, “Perfectly Contented.” After she plays through both pieces, she realizes they are “two halves of the same song.”
Hope was the basis for founding the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin. At the end of “The Joy Luck Club,” Jing-mei observes that the aunties “see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.” Hope is both theme and motif in this story. The opening paragraphs remind the reader of how much Suyuan lost in China, emphasizing her dreams for a new life in America. These ambitions extend to Jing-mei as well, connecting mother and daughter.
Suyuan’s declaration to Jing-mei, “You can be best anything,” reveals her appreciation of the opportunities available in America. Jing-mei shares her mother’s enthusiasm at first, believing that her prodigy side, symbolized by her Peter Pan haircut, will be perfect. As she fails test after test, however, she says, “I hated . . . the raised hopes and failed expectations.” Frustrated, she quits trying, and eventually so does her mother. Jing-mei says, “At last she was beginning to give up hope.” The young Chinese piano player on The Ed Sullivan Show, however, changed that.
The argument about continuing piano lessons lasts until Jing-mei mentions Suyuan’s lost twins. The reader will recall from “The Joy Luck Club” that Suyuan never stopped hoping to see her daughters again. Jing-mei’s childish anger creates an image greater than Suyuan can bear: “her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.” Ironically, Jing-mei wonders later why her mother had given up hope, as the piano sits in the living room, its lid shut against “dust, my misery, and her dreams.” She never connects the hopes for one daughter with the hope of seeing the other two.
Jing-mei’s observation that “Pleading Child” and “Perfectly Contented” are “two halves of the same song” returns the reader to the motif of yin and yang that runs throughout the novel. “Pleading Child” was the “simple, moody” piece from the recital, which now looks “more difficult than I remembered.” “Perfectly Contented” is lighter, longer, faster, and just as easy. The titles suggest Jing-mei’s attitude as a child and as an adult. Not until later in the novel will she realize where her refusal to strive for the best has led her.
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