Two Kinds Characters

The main characters in “Two Kinds” are Jing-mei Woo and her mother Suyuan Woo.

  • Jing-mei Woo is a Chinese American girl whose mother wants her to become a child prodigy. Jing-mei rebels against her mother’s wishes and asserts that she will not allow her mother to change who she is. 
  • Suyuan Woo is Jing-mei’s mother. She immigrated to California from China, where she had to leave her twin daughters behind. She attempts to forcefully shape Jing-mei into a child prodigy, but Jing-mei’s outburst that she wishes she were dead like her mother’s twins puts an end to this dream.

Characters

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Jing-mei Woo

Jing-mei (who often goes by the first name “June”) is a first-generation Chinese American woman. She narrates “Two Kinds” in past tense as she reflects back on her childhood struggles against her now-deceased mother’s seemingly impossible expectations. Jing-mei’s childhood is defined by insecurity and a fear of failure. Though she is at first enthusiastic about her mother's efforts to make her a prodigy, she quickly becomes disillusioned with the process. Despite Jing-mei’s mounting reservations, her mother continues to push her, leading Jing-mei to develop self-esteem issues related to her apparent lack of any special “genius.” She views herself as a “sad, ugly girl” who is only capable of being “ordinary” as opposed to the extraordinary things her mother expects of her. This negative outlook fuels Jing-mei’s anger and resentment towards her mother. 

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Wishing to rebel against what she perceives as her mother's attempts to change her, Jing-mei refuses to put genuine effort into anything her mother encourages her to do as a matter of principle. Essentially, Jing-mei is fighting for her right to be “ordinary.” In her mind, her mother’s expectations of excellence are an effort to change who she is, so she resists this influence by refusing to change or grow at all. She admits that she never really gave herself a chance to be good at the piano because she was so determined “not to be anybody different.” 

This maladaptive attitude stems from a combination of insecurity and stubbornness; for Jing-mei, “the right to fall short of expectations” is the only sense of control she has over her life. By defying her mother’s expectations, she asserts her own will, as opposed to being the “obedient daughter” that her mother expects her to be. This attitude allows her to embrace a sense of independent identity that isn’t informed by parental expectations or external influences. Yet, at the same time, it also prevents her from reaching her full potential in anything she does, as she has staked her entire identity on the right to be “ordinary.” She rejects her mother’s faith in her ability to be anything she wants to be, instead asserting that she is only capable of being herself.

Despite their tumultuous relationship, Jing-mei desperately craves her mother’s approval, and their tense relationship after Jing-mei’s disastrous piano recital seems to represent a source of pain and regret for Jing-mei throughout her life. When her mother offers to give her the old piano for her thirtieth birthday, Jing-mei feels as though she has reclaimed a “shiny trophy,” implying that she views her mother's approval and pride as something valuable. Jing-mei assumed that between her awful piano recital and cruel words, her mother had lost “hope” in her. The offering of the piano represents a healing moment for both mother and daughter, and it allows Jing-mei to realize that her mother always had faith in her. This recognition is bittersweet, and as Jing-mei opens the lid of the piano for the first time in years, she achieves a sort of peace with the past, as represented by the transition between the piano songs “Pleading Child” and “Perfectly Contented.” 

Suyuan Woo

Jing-mei’s mother, Suyuan Woo,...

(The entire section contains 1032 words.)

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