Analysis

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“Two Kinds” is situated firmly within the mid-twentieth-century Chinese immigrant experience. Two major historical events occurred in the 1940s that drastically changed the nature of Chinese immigration to the United States. The first event was the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943, which repealed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act had completely banned Chinese immigration to the United States. It was passed as a xenophobic reaction to the influx of Chinese men who came to work for railroad companies and gold prospectors in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the Magnuson Act is notable for allowing legal immigration from China to the United States for the first time in sixty years, it was still highly restrictive and maintained a strict quota on how many people of Chinese descent could immigrate per year. Indeed, the Magnuson Act is thought to have only passed Congress as a gesture of goodwill towards China, who had allied with the United States during World War II. Racism towards individuals of Chinese descent remained prominent throughout the United States, and restrictions on miscegenation and property ownership were not repealed until the 1960s.

The second event that had a major impact on Chinese immigration to the United States was the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. Jing-mei‘s mother arrived in San Francisco in 1949, presumably to escape the civil war being fought in China between the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, and the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC, led by Mao Zedong, sought to convert the democratically led Republic of China into a communist nation. The CPC’s efforts were eventually successful, and in October of 1949, the Chinese Communist Revolution resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. The civil war was violent and led to resource shortages in many regions, prompting many citizens, such as Jing-mei’s mother, to flee the country in search of safety and better opportunities.

The American Dream as a concept has existed since the founding of the nation in 1776, though the shape of it has evolved over time. For many Chinese immigrants, the American Dream took the form of socioeconomic mobility, which was often limited in their home country. For Jing-mei’s mother’s generation of immigrants, the United States was a land of boundless opportunity. Jing-mei states, “My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America.” This mentality is what drives Jing-mei’s mother to push Jing-mei so hard: she believes that so long as Jing-mei works hard and strives to reach her full potential, then she can achieve anything. 

Jing-mei, by contrast, was born and raised in the United States. Rather than sharing her mother’s belief in the values of hard work, she instead embodies a sense of American individualism. Jing-mei vows that she “won’t be what [she is] not,” even if that means going against her mother’s assertion that children should obey their parents. This is in direct defiance of traditional Chinese values regarding the relationship between parents and children, highlighting the fact that Jing-mei is neither solely Chinese or American, but rather a mixture of both. 

Jing-mei struggles to understand her mother's perspectives, and at least some of this can be attributed to the familial taboo around discussing her mother’s background. Jing-mei is vaguely aware of what her mother went through in order to come to the United States. However, the topic is one that is not openly discussed in the Woo household, which leads to a lack of clear understanding between mother and daughter. This lack of transparency, combined with a somewhat authoritarian parenting style, fosters resentment in Jing-mei, who feels unfairly burdened by her mother’s expectations.

Jing-mei‘s mother’s friend Lindo Jong often brags about her daughter Waverley, who is a talented chess player. Jing-mei‘s mother seems to have developed a competitive relationship with Lindo, as evidenced by their mutual bragging at church. Jing-mei internalizes this apparent rivalry, and her own sense of failure leads her to believe that her mother is disappointed in her for being unable to compete with Waverley. As Jing-mei becomes increasingly sure that she is not a genius or prodigy, she begins to view her mother’s pride and approval as unattainable. In her eyes, anything less than perfection and natural talent will only be a disappointment to her mother. However, Jing-mei’s mother's confusion at the insinuation that she wanted Jing-mei to be a “genius” suggests that perhaps there was a misunderstanding. 

Jing-mei‘s mother says that she only ever wanted Jing-mei to “be [her] best” for her own sake. Even if the end result wasn’t perfect, she still wanted Jing-mei to put the time and effort into whatever it was she did. She wanted her daughter to be successful, and she fully believed that Jing-mei could be successful at anything if she just tried. However, Jing-mei interprets her mother's faith in her as pressure and judgment, leading her to reject earnest effort in favor of a defeatist attitude. In Jing-mei’s mind, if she never actually tries, then she also never really fails. Thus, while Jing-mei’s mother only ever wanted to bring out her full potential, she instead instilled in Jing-mei such an intense fear of failure that it essentially discouraged Jing-mei from ever really putting in a genuine effort. 

Tan highlights this generational miscommunication through the disparate linguistic profiles of Jing-mei and her mother. While Jing-mei speaks grammatically correct English, her mother does not display the same mastery of the language. Though Jing-mei and her mother do not have a literal language barrier separating them, Tan creates a sense of verbal separation between them that underscores their inability to properly understand one another. The linguistic differences between mother and daughter also speak to the broader generational differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Whereas Jing-mei’s mother was born in China and immigrated later in life, Jing-mei was born in the United States and thus does not have the same connection to her Chinese heritage. 

Jing-mei’s resentment towards her mother’s efforts only deepens this disconnect, as Jing-mei rejects the immigrant dream of wealth and success in favor of individuality. However, in spite of their differences and the hurtful exchanges that pass between them, Jing-mei and her mother obviously love one another deeply. Even years after Jing-mei gives up the piano, her mother still asserts her faith that Jing-mei can accomplish anything she wants to. In turn, Jing-mei views her mother’s continued faith in her as a “shiny trophy” that she has finally won back after the disappointments and insecurities of her childhood. Though they often misunderstood each other, Jing-mei’s sentimental handling of her now-deceased mother’s belongings suggests that she has at last embraced her mother’s love for her.

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