Power, Matriarchy, and Domestic Space in "Two Kinds"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637

When Jing-mei's mother shouts at her daughter and demands her complete obedience toward the end of Tan's short story, ‘‘Two Kinds,’’ she is defending her power over the only territory to which she can lay claim, the domestic sphere. Cut off from her native China by distance and political upheaval, yet distanced from surrounding American culture by language and other cultural barriers, the mother in the story makes a fortress of her home and uses it as a base of operations for deploying her matriarchal power over the life and destiny of her child.

Because her daughter has absorbed American ideas about individuality and self-determination, she has different expectations about gender and domestic space. In short, she is more likely to expect the household to be the site of nurturing instead of coercion, a place where her singularity is celebrated rather than bent to external standards of conformity.

The rise of the women's novel in nineteenth-century American literature was accompanied by the idea of women's sphere. Though some used the notion of a specified female territory—both literal and figurative—as an argument for excluding woman from public life, many readers of popular women's literature eagerly embraced a world view that celebrated their domestic lives.

Domestic fiction did more than depict the lives of housewives, however, as feminist critics have pointed out; in fact, it helped carve out an autonomous realm where women could exert influence on their lives and on the lives of their loved ones.

Generally speaking, the form this influence took was the opposite of the means of influence that prevailed in the masculine sphere. Women's sphere was characterized by moderation, moral certainty, piety, and above all, nurturing. It was the duty of every woman to keep the pressures and vulgarities of the outside (masculine) world from crossing the threshold into the haven of the home.

This is the tradition of women's literature within and against which Tan places her stories of mothers and daughters. In ‘‘Two Kinds’’ the domestic space is most certainly in the mother's control. Her dominance over the space is so complete, in fact, that the narrator barely mentions that her father also lives there.

Unlike traditional domestic space in American literature, Jing-mei's mother uses her realm not as a refuge from the machinations of the larger world, but as a kind of home base from which to interpret that world and launch her attacks on it. She gathers information assiduously, collecting magazines from other people's homes and studying them diligently, ‘‘searching for stories about remarkable children.’’

She also learns from television, and becomes fixated on the image of the little Chinese girl performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. The narrator describes how her mother ‘‘seemed entranced by the music, a frenzied little piano piece with a mesmerizing quality, which alternated between quick, playful passages and teasing, lilting ones.’’

In this image, Jing-mei's mother has found the ideal model for her daughter: exceptional but not unattainably remarkable. ‘‘Just like you,’’ she says to her daughter, ‘‘Not the best.’’ The difference between the girl on television and the girl in the living room watching television is merely effort. Jing-mei could be the girl on television if only she would try.

The mother exercises matriarchal power in the domestic space that she controls. But unlike traditional uses of domestic space in the American women's novel, the mother is not interested in excluding influences from the outside or public world. Unfortunately, since she lacks cultural fluency in American ways, she does not have the critical apparatus to evaluate or interpret the messages she receives. As a consequence,...

(This entire section contains 1637 words.)

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she accepts with neither skepticism nor cynicism that ‘‘you could be anything you wanted to be in America.’’

According to Jing-mei, her mother has a whole litany of things "you" could become in America. The "you," of course, refers to her daughter; the mother has no faith or interest in exploring new public identities for herself. Obsessed with infinite possibilities of improvement, the mother (and her reluctant daughter) ‘‘watch Shirley's [Temple] old movies on TV as though they were training films.’’ Jing-mei confesses that in the beginning she was "just as excited'' as her mother at the prospect of becoming a prodigy.

Yet soon the atmosphere in the domestic sphere becomes less nurturing and more coercive. The mother would ‘‘present tests’’ on multiplication, world capitals, and Bible passages. These kinds of objective measurements of a child's worth do not typically belong in women's sphere, where cooperation and sacrifice are privileged over competition and mastery.

Thus, the mother has wielded the only power she has, matriarchal authority largely derived from Chinese culture, in the only space she controls, the household. The problem is that in America the child cannot be contained in the household, the matriarchal authority is not absolute. Jing-mei soon begins to resist.

Because her mother's power within the domestic space is impossible to challenge directly, Jing-mei discovers that passive resistance, or negative power, will thwart her mother's plans. After too many evenings trying to meet the challenges, she says: ‘‘[something] inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations.’’

Failure brings a new revelation as well, that she has the power to resist. She looks in the mirror and sees "what seemed to be the prodigy side of [her].'' She is surprised to discover that ''the girl looking back at [her] was angry, powerful.’’ In an instant, Jing-mei devises a rudimentary strategy against her mother's coercive practices: ‘‘I had new thoughts, willful thoughts—or rather, thoughts filled with lots of won'ts. I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be who I'm not.’’

For a while, the narrator thinks that her desultory and distracted performances on the tests have made her mother give up hope on making her into a prodigy. But then they see the Chinese girl playing piano on the Ed Sullivan Show. The mother forms a new plan and the daughter redoubles her efforts to resist it.

The mother's plan is to make her daughter into a musical prodigy so that she herself can compete with other women in her social world, specifically with Lindo Jong, whose daughter Waverly is ‘‘Chinatown's Littlest Chinese Chess Champion.’’ Meanwhile, Jing-mei vows ‘‘not to be anybody different'' and daydreams about "being somewhere else, about being someone else.’’

The mother's objective has less to do with securing her daughter's future than it does with her own desire for status within a matriarchal and domestic social structure of Chinese-American women. Jing-mei is well aware of her mother's self-interested motives and is "determined to put an end to her foolish pride.''

Jing-mei's performance at the talent show certainly does end her mother's boasting about her superior musical abilities, but it also humiliates Jing-mei herself. Suddenly aware that the struggle over piano virtuosity had larger stakes than just thwarting her mother's wishes, Jing-mei feels like the ‘‘whole world’’ is watching as she embarrasses herself and her family. After the show she is "devastated'' by the look on her mother's face, "a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything.’’

Certainly the mother has lost her bid to compete with Lindo Jong and her attempt to raise her status in her world, but she is not ready to surrender all her authority yet. Just three days after the "talent-show fiasco’’ the mother tries to command Jing-mei to resume her piano practice. Emboldened by her ability to exercise negative power, the daughter refuses. She reasons to herself: ‘‘I didn't have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn't her slave. This wasn't China.'' But the mother persists, asserting her will upon her daughter's body by dragging her to the piano bench.

As if her physical dominance were not enough to prove her authority over the domestic space, the mother makes a move toward appropriating the daughter's identity. By demanding total obedience, she erases her daughter's sense of self. For the Americanized Jing-mei, identity is not something destined or something achieved. It's not a thing at all. Jing-mei ‘‘did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me.’’

In other words, identity is synonymous with individuality—it's part of a person's singular essence. So when her mother tries to assert her power over her daughter's sense of self, the daughter has only one defensive strategy left to her: to reject her matrilineal heritage altogether and to destabilize her mother's source of power by saying that she wishes she were not her daughter and by reminding her mother of the two children she abandoned in China years before.

The narrator reveals more than twenty years later that this incident did permanently alter the relationship between her and her mother. They "never talked about the disaster at the piano bench or [her] terrible declarations afterward.’’ Yet the mother's power over domestic space, though diminished, is never completely overthrown. The mother's offer to give Jing-mei the piano for her thirtieth birthday is a gesture of forgiveness certainly, but it can also be seen as a colonizing gesture, a way of exporting her influence into her daughter's domestic space.

As an adult, and after her mother's death, Jing-mei seems more open to her mother's influence and respectful of her matriarchal authority. By packing up her mother's Chinese silk dresses and hand-knit sweaters in bright colors and deciding to take them home with her, she assents to her mother's ongoing presence in her life and stakes a claim on the domestic space in her own world by letting her mother share it.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton teaches American literature and writing classes at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and she writes frequently about the modern short story.

Mother-Daughter Relationships

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017

The central struggle in Amy Tan's story ‘‘Two Kinds'' is a battle of wills between the narrator, a young Chinese-American girl, and her mother, a Chinese immigrant. "Two Kinds'' is a coming-of-age story, in which the narrator, Jing-mei, struggles to forge her own sense of identity in the face of her strong-willed mother's dream that she become a "prodigy.'' Jing-mei is caught between her Chinese mother's traditional ideas about how to raise a daughter, and her own development as a Chinese-American girl straddling two cultures.

Like many immigrants to the United States, Jing-mei's mother has created idealized visions of her adopted country as a land of opportunity where all dreams may be realized. The first line of the story introduces this central idea: "My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America.’’ This vision of America as a place where the streets are paved with gold is further described in the opening paragraph:

You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.

The tone of this opening paragraph introduces an element of irony in the narrator's attitude toward her mother's vision of America as a place where ‘‘you could become anything you wanted to be.’’

Everything sounds too simple and too easily achieved. Yet the narrator does not paint a picture of her mother as ignorant or silly. The story indicates that America is a symbol of hope and optimism in the life of a woman who has suffered numerous tragedies in the form of great personal and financial loss, and yet refuses to give up her dreams:

America was where all my mother's hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.

Her mother's American dreams, then, function as a symbol of hope for a brighter future for her daughter.

Having absorbed idealized visions of the "American Dream'' from television and other forms of mass media, Jing-mei's mother manages to fabricate a seemingly endless supply of success fantasies for her daughter. Each new inspiration about the nature of her daughter's destiny to become a ‘‘prodigy" is sparked by what she sees on television, reads in women's magazines or reads about in such mass-market publications as Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not.

Her first attempt to turn Jing-mei into a "prodigy" is derived from television movies. "My mother thought I could be a Chinese Shirley Temple,’’ explains the narrator. ‘‘We'd watch Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films.’’ Later, her mother's determination to make her daughter a musical prodigy is inspired by a Chinese girl she sees performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Through this process, Jing-mei's mother demands that she "try on'' a variety of identities: from ‘‘Chinese Shirley Temple,’’ to child genius, to piano virtuoso. Jing-mei at first absorbs her mother's dreams in which one may simply decide to be a prodigy, and then pick and choose which type of prodigy to be as if it were as easy as trying on clothes in a store or changing the TV channel.

Through playing both "Pleading Child" and "Perfectly Contented" again as an adult, Jing-mei reaches a sort of epiphany, or moment of insight and personal revelation.

I pictured the prodigy part of me as many different images, trying each one on for size. I was a dainty ballerina girl standing by the curtains, waiting to hear the right music that would send me floating on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity. I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air.

Yet Jing-mei soon finds that her mother's determination that she becomes a prodigy threatens to stifle her own sense of who she is. Ironically, it is out of defiance against her mother that she ultimately does forge her own sense of personal identity.

Jing-mei's sense of failure to embody her mother's hopes and dreams is at first distressful to her: "I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations." When she looks in the mirror one night, she sees only her mother's vision of her as a failure and a disappointment:

I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back—and that it would always be this ordinary face—I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl!

The face Jing-mei first sees in the mirror is the face of who she is in her mother's eyes. "Trying to scratch out the face in the mirror'' symbolizes her attempt to erase or obliterate her mother's image of her as a failure. Through this acknowledgment to herself that she is not the person her mother wants her to be, she begins to glimpse an image of her own definition of herself emerging from the mirror.

And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me—because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won'ts.

Through this insight, Jing-mei for the first time articulates her determination to live by her own self-definition, rather than those ill-fitting "selves" her mother continues to impose upon her: ‘‘I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be what I'm not.’’ As the story progresses, Jing-mei becomes more and more openly defiant against her mother's wishes. One night, she bursts out at her mother:

‘‘Why don't you like me the way I am? I'm not a genius! I can't play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn't go on TV for a million dollars!’’ I cried.

Later, when her mother insists that she continue to attend piano lessons, after she has made it clear that the piano is not her calling, Jing-mei further strengthens her resolve not to conform to her mother's wishes. This is also an important moment in the development of Jing-mei's cultural identity. For the first time, she articulates her resistance to her mother in terms of the cultural gap between her mother's traditional Chinese ideas about daughters being obedient and her own perspective as a strong-willed Chinese-American girl.

And then I decided. I didn't have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn't her slave. This wasn't China. I had listened to her before and look what happened. She was the stupid one.

When her mother continues to insist that she attend her piano lesson, Jing-mei becomes openly defiant. Through this assertion of her own will against her mother's, Jing-mei strengthens her sense of personal identity in opposition to her mother. Jing-mei begins to sense the emergence of her true, inner self.

" No!" I said, and I now felt stronger, as if my true self had finally emerged. So this was what had been inside me all along.

With this moment of self-assertion, Jing-mei releases a floodgate of protest against her mother's attempts to mold her in the shape of her own hopes and dreams. Along with this, Jing-mei protests against the unwritten message her mother has given that she is not all right the way she is.

‘‘You want me to be someone I'm not!’’ I sobbed. ‘‘I'll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!"

Her mother's response is expressive of her traditional Chinese ideas about mother-daughter relationships.

‘‘Only two kinds of daughters,’’ she shouted in Chinese. "Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!''

She says this in Chinese, emphasizing that it is a perspective that comes from her Chinese background, and marking the cultural gap between Chinese immigrant mother and Chinese-American daughter. For Jing-mei, defining herself in relationship with her mother is also a way of expressing her attitude as a child raised in America, a Chinese-American daughter who follows her ‘‘own mind,’’ not the "obedient" Chinese daughter her mother wants her to be.

‘‘Then I wish I wasn't your daughter! I wish you weren't my mother,’’ I shouted.

Jing-mei describes this release of anger toward her mother as a cathartic experience, in which she is relieved of the burden of her unexpressed anger toward her mother and her own negative feelings about herself.

It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.

The "worms and toads and slimy things'' crawling out from Jing-mei's chest symbolize the anger and other dark, negative feelings that have been penned up deep inside her until this moment.

Although this incident of confrontation between mother and daughter is never again mentioned directly, the older Jing-mei is able to reconcile these dichotomies in her sense of self when, twenty years later, after her mother's death, she is sorting through her mother's belongings.

Jing-mei first comes across items that she remembers in a negative light—symbolic of her mother' s relentless habit of imposing upon her things she didn't like. ‘‘The sweaters she had knitted in yellow, pink, bright orange—all the colors I hated—I put those in moth-proof boxes.''

However, Jing-mei stumbles upon some items from her mother's past in China that she ultimately values enough to keep. Her mother's old Chinese silk dresses come to symbolize a positive element of Jing-mei's Chinese heritage.

I found some old Chinese silk dresses, the kind with little slits up the sides. I rubbed the old silk against my skin, then wrapped them in tissue and decided to take them home with me.

In choosing to keep these items, Jing-mei symbolically chooses to maintain and preserve certain elements of her Chinese heritage, handed down through her mother. In sorting through her mother's things, Jing-mei symbolically maintains her individual identity as she continues to reject certain things her mother tried to impose upon her (the sweaters), while seeing other items with new eyes (the silk dresses).

Jing-mei next comes upon the piano sheet music she had once refused to learn. As a child, she had failed to learn a song called "Pleading Child.’’ This song title symbolically refers to her own position as a child, silently "pleading'' with her mother not to force her into an identity not of her own choosing.

Yet, when she rediscovers this sheet music still on her mother's piano, she finds another title: "Perfectly Contented.’’ This title suggests a sense of stability and happiness. Through playing both ‘‘Pleading Child’’ and ‘‘Perfectly Contented’’ again as an adult, Jing-mei reaches a sort of epiphany, or moment of insight and personal revelation.

In the closing line of the story, she finds that she "realized they were two halves of the same song.'' The idea of her negative associations with being a "pleading child'' in youth are reconciled with the positive associations of being at least closer to a state of being "perfectly contented,’’ refers to Jing-mei's adult perspective that her childhood self and her grown-up self represent "two halves'' of the same person, and "two halves'' of the same identity—the Chinese and the American.

Likewise, the story's title, ‘‘Two Kinds,’’ refers to the story's central concern with the mother and daughter as two different kinds of people, yet members of the same family, and the same cultural heritage.

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture with a specialization in American cinema from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer/editor and film critic and teaches courses in American cinema.

Mother-Daughter Bind

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075

‘‘I wish I were dead,’’ the protagonist and narrator of Amy Tan's ‘‘Two Kinds,’’ the young Jing-mei, yells at her mother, watching her blow away in response like a leaf, ‘‘thin, brittle, lifeless.’’ In this moment Jing-mei's empty battle for self has been won, though the victory is also a death, symbolized by her mother disappearance from the scene. The crisis between Jing-mei and her mother in Amy Tan's "Two Kinds'' is grave and of a classic type of interest to psychoanalytic theorists: the peculiar love/hate entwinement between mother and daughter which hinges on ideas of identity and abandonment. In this story, the tug of war over Jing-mei's identity is essentially tragic; for either one to give in will mean a loss for both. Should Jing-mei bend to the fierce will of her mother and become something she feels she is not (prodigy), she must abandon her sense of her own unique identity, which is itself inchoate and unstable. Likewise, for Jing-mei's mother to give up on Jing-mei's potential, she believes she will enact abandonment, as she feels it her duty as a newly Americanized mother to mold Jing-mei to perfection, or leave Jing-mei for naught. This maternal drama is intensified since Jing-mei's mother herself harbors enormous guilt about abandonment, having lost two daughters already. By telling her mother she wishes she were dead like her sisters, Jing-mei defines herself as separate from her mother; she claims her identity, but she abandons her mother to the horrors of her past. In ‘‘Two Kinds'' the psychic struggle of a daughter's separation from the mother in order to define herself is played out in a series of threats and losses.

Exploring the crisis in a daughter's identity, Tan offers Jing-mei, the stubborn yet insecure daughter of a peculiarly strong-willed mother. Defined largely by what she is not rather than by what is for her mother, Jing-mei remains nearly paralyzed for much of the story, incapable of acting in any direction at all. Trapped between her mother's trance of Jing-mei as the emerging, perfected American daughter, and her own muted and flawed sense of identity, Jing-mei can only sabotage herself and her mother's desires for her. The plot of the story, in which Jing-mei fails to acquire musical ability, serves to dramatize the story's real drama: many kinds of abandonment, the result of Jing-mei's shaky identity. In her failure to achieve, Jing-mei abandons both herself and her mother. In refusing to become, she empties herself of all hope, she obliterates the hope of her strong-armed mother, and she forces her mother to abandon her as well.

Abandonment is not only a symbol for a mother-daughter crisis, however, in Tan's work. It has real historical value. Jing-mei's mother had two other daughters whom she had to abandon in Kweilin, China, during the Chinese Revolution. Set against that event, the mother-daughter tangle that comprises ‘‘Two Kinds’’ is intensified. The constant threat of abandonment remains intrinsic to the mother-daughter bond. According to prevailing psychoanalytic views, a daughter's growing sense of identity, of difference from the mother, hinges on that exact threat. Neither Jing-mei nor her mother can get over such actual losses. Tan also presents this story as a reminder that the bond between mother and daughter transcends time, has a forever meaning. The identification of both characters with each other via the concept of abandonment further fuses them together, making their imminent separation even more harsh.

"Abandonment represents the insuperable trauma inflicted by the discovery—doubtless a precocious one and for that very reason impossible to work out—of the existence of a not-I,’’ French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva writes, in an essay exploring the tenuous nature of the mother-daughter bind. ‘‘Two Kinds’’ finds Jing-mei at exactly this precocious juncture in her life, in which abandonment is not only represented by the existence of an other, but personified by it in the form of her two abandoned sisters. Both mother and daughter remain acutely aware of these phantom girls. This has an affect on Jing-mei's ability to have a sense of identity separate from her mother and her presumed-dead sisters. First, Jing-mei knows that her mother ‘‘lost everything in China.’’ Yet if her mother lost "everything," that must make Jing-mei nothing. In fact she frequently tells herself she is nothing, will be nothing, nothing will become of her. On the other hand, sensitized to her mother's loss, Jing-mei is nevertheless too young to know that her mother will not similarly abandon her. That her mother "never looked back'' does not bode well for a daughter who seems never to please a mother enough.

Earlier in the cycle of stories in which "Two Kinds’’ appears, Jing-mei states ‘‘I was not one of those babies’’ and, imagining her mother going to retrieve them, laments "now my mother's left me forever.’’ Here one sees how intricately entwined Jing-mei's sense of identity is to her mother being present, loving her as much as the other daughters whom she lost, whom Jing-mei will never be. For Jing-mei, the two sisters in China are like a phantom limb, constantly reminding her of Kristeva's "not-I.’’ This lack of identity is further fueled by an intense, almost primitive fear of her mother's potential abandonment. This fear echoes throughout the story and is expressed in Jing-mei's visceral response to her mother's attempts to sculpt her into something she is not. If she could become perfect, she muses, "my mother would adore me.'' If she is adored for something she is not—perfect—she will not be abandoned. However, this insecure child suffers from peculiar self-hatred. Knowing she is not perfect, and in fact thinking herself "ugly,'' she is fated to be left. For Jing-mei, a failure to be a beautiful prodigy will surely result in the loss of her mother's love. She designs exactly this occurrence, in fact.

The plot of the story, which follows Jing-mei's despondent incapability to please her mother, is a vehicle through which Tan represents Jing-mei's insecure notion of self, the story's true tragedy. A feeling of security, let alone perfection, continuously eludes Jing-mei largely because of her own refusal to try. Influenced by—but misunderstanding through exaggeration—the American notion of individualism Jing-mei believes she can only be herself. This concept, however, is of little use to this child of little identity, a girl who lives in fear of losing and who believes herself a failure from the start. As she only has a limited, and even negative sense of self, her self-image is a very unhappy one. At first she tries, but upon doing poorly at one of their early prodigy sessions, Jing-mei sees her "mother's disappointed face again,’’ and states ‘‘something inside of me began to die.’’ Her sense of identity is so fragile that it cannot survive even this small abandonment of hope from her mother. "Maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance,’’ she admits, but she is not so sure that is the case. She appears to believe that she can only deserve love for what she is; however, she defines herself only for what she is not. Therefore she will get no loves at all, she will lose the mother's affection. She is not the little Chinese girl on the television, she is not Shirley Temple (only resembles "Negro Chinese'' her mother exclaims at a failed perm), she is not her chess-maniac cousin. Though Jing-mei's mother is indeed disappointed, she remains full of hope and desire. It is rather Jing-mei's disappointment in herself, her perception of the failure of identity, that Tan foregrounds most distinctly. The question that haunts Jing-mei most throughout the years is not why her mother was disappointed, but rather "Why had she given up hope?’’ It is Jing-mei's fragile identity, her fears, that this story is about.

Tan offers Jing-mei one small attempt at feeling better. Early in the story, at the start of the short-lived mother-daughter conspiracy to sculpt Jing-mei's identity, Jing-mei looks in the mirror and at first sees a ‘‘sad, ugly girl.’’ This enrages her. She proceeds to rage against the image, trying to ‘‘scratch out the face in the mirror.’’ But after a moment something better shines through. Recognizing the power of a daughter's anger, Tan allows Jing-mei a moment of clarity that foreshadows the story's calming end. ‘‘This girl and I are the same,’’ she thinks calmly. Here, Jing-mei expresses a nascent sense of identity, one full of power and rage, which separates her from her mother. Her mother, one scene earlier, had nearly lost hope. But here Jing-mei recognizes that though she fears abandonment by her mother, she also desires such separation, because it frees her to be herself. Yet this strength and serenity cannot last. It is not strong enough to compete with the anxieties Jing-mei feels in the face of her mother's constantly dissipating pleasure in her daughter. ‘‘Why can't you like me the way I am,'' she soon plaintively asks. Finally, disavowing any hope of happy union in herself or with her mother, Jing-mei enacts a symbolic suicide of sorts: she stops trying to achieve. This represents that she stops trying to become. Jing-mei gives up hope of being loved by her mother, of having an identity they both can embrace. For her this is the equivalent of being dead.

This harrowing, precocious childhood realization has grave consequences for Jing-mei only alluded to in this story. Jing mei remarks that she eventually drops out of college, among other failures. Yet the story's true tragedy is contained within its obsession with the mother-daughter identity bind. In fact it is a double bind: the child Jing-mei cannot be what her mother wants and therefore, she decides, she must not be wanted. Likewise, as the child Jing-mei believes she can only be herself, and does not yet know who she is, she must therefore be nothing. This thwarts her development into a productive, self-defined adult. Projecting her anxieties onto her mother in youth, she ends up essentially blaming her mother all the way through early adulthood for her trauma (she states near the end of the story "I never found a way to ask her how she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable’’ [emphasis added]). Tan's fragile Jing-mei floats a long time, identityless, abandoned to her worries. Kristeva describes this as ‘‘the [girl] child's unstable identity,'' which when faced by the mother, gets "frozen within the drive of intensities that disturb it.’’

Only in her thirties, at story's conclusion, does Jing-mei realize that perhaps, the war over her self-definition was one contained largely within herself, that perhaps her mother had not in fact truly abandoned her. Receiving as a gift the piano on which she failed to prove her genius, Jing-mei finds the musical score for a piece she performed quite poorly at a recital. This horrible recital had been one of the nails in the coffin of her mother's desires for her greatness. The piece as she remembers it was called ‘‘Pleading Child.’’ This is the child she remembers being—pleading with her mother to let her be herself, to leave her alone without abandoning her truly. Yet, turning the page, Jing-mei realizes the song has a second part, ‘‘Contented Child.’’ She finds a sense of calm while playing it. The story ends with an eerie note of stability, Jing-mei finding melancholy pleasure in the recognition of ‘‘Two halves of the same song,'' or the song of herself. "I am large, I contain multitudes,'' the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote in his seminal tribute to American individualism, ‘‘Song of Myself.’’ The piano is a gift from her mother, who has not left her after all. In playing the song, Jing-mei is embracing the two sides of herself. She finally leaves behind that selfish dread of losing her mother's love, which had kept her from being. "Identity,'' Kristeva writes, ‘‘emerges only at the end of this process when narcissistic shimmering draws to a close,’’ that is, when one is able to recognize that ‘‘firm identity remains a fiction.’’ In the end, Tan does not abandon Jing-mei to her daughterly fears.

Source: Kate Bernheimer, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Kate Bernheimer received her M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Arizona and is the author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales (Anchor Books, 1998).


Critical Overview