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. 

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, is a Chinese immigrant who came to San Francisco while fleeing the violence of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Jing-mei remarks that her mother lost “everything” in China, and her almost manic belief in the American Dream seems to stem at least in part from a desire for those losses to have been worth something. As a result, Jing-mei’s mother places all of her expectations and hopes for the future on Jing-mei. However, though her intentions are good, her actions only serve to alienate and frustrate her daughter. Jing-mei views her mother’s lofty expectations as a burden, and she resents her mother’s insistence that she can do anything she puts her mind to. Jing-mei desperately craves her mother’s approval, but her mother only ever seems capable of expressing disappointment in her apparent lack of genius.

Much of Jing-mei’s relationship with her mother is defined by miscommunication and misunderstanding. Jing-mei falsely believes that her mother will only be happy with her if she is a “genius” at something. When she confronts her mother about these impossible expectations, however, her mother replies by incredulously asking, "Who ask you to be genius?" Her mother’s obvious confusion suggests that perhaps Jing-mei’s interpretations of her mother’s actions were not always accurate. 

Jing-mei’s mother goes on to state that she only ever wanted Jing-mei to be the best that she was capable of being. Jing-mei interpreted this as an impossible standard, unable to comprehend why her mother has set her expectations so high. In reality, her mother seems to believe that Jing-mei’s potential truly is unlimited, and she only wants to see her daughter put in the effort necessary to unlock that potential. Though her mother’s demanding nature and inability to communicate her true intentions alienated Jing-mei, their relationship is ultimately defined by Jing-mei’s mother’s enduring faith in her daughter. The gift of the piano for Jing-mei’s thirtieth birthday symbolizes that Jing-mei’s mother never truly lost her faith in her daughter, as Jing-mei believed that she had; instead, she allowed Jing-mei to assert her own will and define her own path in life, all the while believing in Jing-mei’s unlimited potential.

Mr. Chong

Mr. Chong is Jing-mei’s deaf and visually impaired piano teacher. He agrees to teach her to play in exchange for cleaning services from Jing-mei’s mother. Jing-mei takes advantage of Mr. Chong’s impairments in order to get away with not practicing or improving on the piano. 

Lindo and Waverly Jong

Lindo Jong is a friend of Jing-mei’s mother. They are both part of a mahjong group that calls itself the Joy Luck Club. Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, is a chess prodigy, and Lindo often brags about Waverly’s accomplishments to her friends. Jing-mei’s mother has developed a competitive relationship with Lindo and some of her motivation for pushing Jing-mei so hard seems to be her rivalry with Lindo.

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