A young Chinese American woman, Jing-Mei “June” Woo, recalls, after her mother’s death, her mother’s sadness at having left her twin baby girls in China in 1949. June has used her mother’s regret as a weapon in a battle of wills focusing on what her mother wants her to be and what she wants. June wins, leaving her mother, Suyuan, stunned when she says she wishes she were dead like the twins. Although this scene characterizes the common struggle for power between mother and daughter, the story also illustrates the cultural division between an Asian immigrant and her Asian American daughter. These cultural clashes resonate throughout the short story, as does the discordant sound of June’s piano playing.
Wanting her daughter to be an American prodigy, Suyuan Woo epitomizes the mother living through her child. With the American ideal that you can be anything you want, she prepares and coaches June into becoming a Chinese Shirley Temple. June believes in her mother’s dreams for her and admits she was filled with a sense that she would soon become perfect.
She and her mother, who cleans houses for extra money, begin searching through the latest American magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest, for stories of child prodigies. Every evening her mother tests her relentlessly for intellectual prowess, such as knowing all the world capitals and multiplying large numbers in her head. June grows resentful as she sees the disappointment on her mother’s face as she fails to measure up to her expectations.
Discovering a powerful side of herself, June resolves not to become something she is not simply to please her mother. One evening while watching The Ed Sullivan Show on television, her mother sees a young Chinese girl play the piano with great skill. Much to June’s chagrin, her mother strikes up a deal with a retired piano teacher, Mr. Chong, who agrees to give June piano lessons in exchange for weekly housecleanings. June soon discovers that Old Mr. Chong is deaf, like the great composer Ludwig von Beethoven.
Ultimately, June must appear in a talent show to display her great talent. Her mother invites all of her friends from the Joy Luck Club, a group of four Chinese women who meet regularly to play mah-jongg, a parlor game, and socialize. Knowing she is not prepared but somehow thinking that the prodigy in her actually exists, June plays to her surprised and somewhat embarrassed parents. Only her deaf teacher applauds with enthusiasm as she completes a piece from Robert Schumann called “Pleading Child.”
June feels that after her dismal performance, her mother’s dream for her will end. A few days later while she watches television, her mother reminds her that it is time to practice. It is the final showdown between mother and daughter. June tells her mother she will never be a genius or the daughter that her mother wants her to be. Her mother explains that there are only two kinds of daughters: those who are obedient and the ones who follow their own minds. Although her mother thinks she was won by identifying which kind of daughter can live in her house, the daughter, feeling her own power, strikes the final blow by shouting that she wishes she were dead. Suyuan, because she had to leave her young twins for dead on a roadside, while fleeing war-torn China, is profoundly affected by June’s outburst. Painfully, June looks back on this as an unresolved conflict that has followed her into adulthood. She believes that this was the moment that her mother gave up hope for her only daughter’s success, and that she internalized this self-defeating attitude. A few years before her death, her mother offers her the piano for her thirtieth birthday. June accepts, seeing this as a peace offering, a shiny trophy that she has finally won back.