Download Two Kinds Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Two Kinds Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"Two Kinds" is narrated by Jing-mei, a Chinese American girl who is locked in a struggle over her identity with her Chinese immigrant mother, who believes "that you could be anything you wanted to be in America." This particular struggle invokes the mother's attempt to mold Jing-mei into a musical prodigy so that she will be able to brag to her friend Lindo Jong, whose own daughter is a precocious chess champion. However, the mother also wants her daughter to have the best of both worlds: Chinese tradition and American opportunity. The mother's hopes for her daughter's future belie her own tragic past. Like Tan's own mother, the mother in "Two Kinds" was forced to leave her three children behind when she fled an abusive marriage in her native China. By the end of the story, Jing-mei better understands her mother's sacrifices and motivations.

The idea for piano lessons at the heart of this particular story's conflict comes from television and popular magazines. Jing-mei and her mother watch Shirley Temple movies, trying to imagine her as a child star. They even go so far as to get her hair styled to make her look like the blond, curly haired Temple. The mother also reads countless "stories about remarkable children" in the magazines she brings home from the houses she cleans.

The mother's vague ambitions for her daughter take shape one night when they are both watching the Ed Sullivan Show (a long-running and popular variety show in the 1960s). There they see "a little Chinese girl, about nine years old, with a Peter Pan haircut," playing a piano solo in a fluffy white dress. Just three days later, the narrator's mother has already arranged to trade housecleaning for piano lessons with Mr. Chong, the retired piano teacher in the building. A fierce struggle ensues between the mother's desire to make her daughter into a prodigy (more to satisfy her own ego), and the daughter's resistance to her mother's efforts to make her into someone she is not.

Jing-mei is a rebellious child caught between two cultures: the Chinese culture that prevails in her mother's home, and the American one that prevails everywhere else. She resists her mother's attempts at discipline and resents the pressures of high achievement that immigrant parents typically place on their children. She also understands that her mother is using her to win a competition with her friend Lindo Jong; both women brag about whose daughter is more talented. She is resolved to be true to herself and not take part in such a competition. Her strategy of quiet and passive resistance, in which she lies about her practice time and does only what she must do during her lessons, culminates at her piano recital, where her awful, unpracticed playing embarrasses herself as well as her mother. Much to the Jing-mei's shock, however, her mother insists that the piano lessons continue. With her mother literally dragging her to the bench to practice, the narrator says that she wishes she weren't her mother's daughter, that she had been one of the babies her mother abandoned long ago in China.

Such a cruel and hurtful statement silences her mother and ends the piano lessons for good. Many years later, the mother offers to give the piano to her daughter, now in her thirties, who interprets it as a kind of peace offering, though she still does not fully understand her mother's motivations.


(Short Stories for Students)

Mr. Chong
Mr. Chong—also known as Old Chong—is Jing-mei's deaf and partially blind piano teacher. When she realizes that he can't hear the music, she stops trying to hit the right notes; when she sees that he can't read fast enough to follow the sheet music, she just keeps up the rhythm and he is pleased. At her disastrous recital he is the only one who cheers enthusiastically.

The narrator's father makes only a token appearance in the story. He is not involved in the mother-daughter...

(The entire section is 996 words.)