Historical Context

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Chinese Immigration to America
San Francisco was (and still is) one of the largest Chinese-American communities in the United States. When immigrant groups settle in one area and create extensive social and economic structures, these areas are called enclaves. By the time the mothers in The Joy Luck Club (and Tan's own parents) arrived in California, there was a large and thriving Chines-American enclave.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was designed to limit the numbers of Chinese entering the country and prevented those already here from becoming citizens, as many as 30,000 a year arrived in the United States from mainland China.

These immigrants were almost exclusively male and ‘‘only the hardest, dirtiest, most menial jobs were open to them,’’ according to social historian Thomas Sowell. They built most of the railroad across the Sierra and took on the dangerous jobs of strike-breakers in the mines. Nonetheless, they maintained strong social ties and were able to establish economic structures such as mutual aid societies and credit unions.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, more women arrived from China and the sex imbalance (and seedy reputation) of Chinatowns improved. The population of Chinese Americans began to rise and by 1950 it was higher than its earlier peak in 1890. These children, like Jing-mei in "Two Kinds'' were often expected to make significant strides up the American social and economic ladder.

Although they escaped the anti-Chinese laws and overt prejudice that faced earlier generations, they still encountered a whole range of difficulties associated with biculturalism: ‘‘cultural dislocation; the problems and challenges of integrating two cultures; intergenerational struggles within immigrant families; the conflict between acculturation and adherence to an ancestral tradition, and between assimilation and parochialism,’’ in Huntley's words.

Asian American Literature
The conflicts and tensions associated with bi-culturalism are a recurring theme of Asian-American literature. Tan's unique contribution to the literature is the articulation of the Chinese-American woman's voice. Critics and social historians have noted that Chinese women are acculturated to silence and are unlikely to speak or write publicly about private experience.

Chinese-American women writers, in Huntley's estimation, ‘‘have been largely but inadvertently responsible for the new and sudden popularity of Asian-American writing, a development made even more startling because Chinese woman were an almost invisible minority in American society until the early 1950s.’’

Following the lead of Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan developed literary and narrative techniques like the use of the talk story that allowed the individual experiences of the older generation of women to be expressed in mythic and symbolic terms. Tan's other major contribution to the genre is the use of many narrators in a single text, a device that Hong Kingston had already introduced American readers to in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

Despite her identification with other Asian-American writers and the subject matter of her work, Tan is reluctant to be seen as a writer of ethnic American literature. In an interview in online magazine Salon, Tan explained her position. "Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they're writing a very specific story.’’ Nevertheless, the commercial and critical success of Tan's work is often credited with sparking a new interest among publishers and readers in Asian-American writing.

Social Concerns

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Amy Tan's "Two Kinds" is the last story in the second of four sections of her immensely successful first book, The Joy Luck Club. Tan intended the book to be read as a loose collection of interrelated stories, but it is often referred to as a novel. Several of the stories appeared in periodicals separately, many of them in Atlantic Monthly, which purchased the serial rights to the book prior to its publication. "Two Kinds" was initially published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1989, one month before the book was released.

Like all the stories in the book, "Two Kinds" explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. In particular, Tan's subject is the distance between mothers who were born in China before the communist revolution and thus have been cut off from their native culture for decades, and their American-born daughters who must negotiate the twin burdens of their Chinese ancestry and American expectations for success. The story is set in San Francisco, a large and thriving enclave of Chinese American culture where Chinese American communities have over time created extensive social and economic structures.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was designed to limit the numbers of Chinese entering the country and prevent those already here from becoming citizens, as many as 30,000 a year arrived in the United States from mainland China. These immigrants were almost exclusively male and "only the hardest, dirtiest, most menial jobs were open to them," according to social historian Thomas Sowell. They worked as laborers on the railroads that crossed the Sierra mountains and took on the dangerous jobs of strikebreakers in the mines. Nonetheless, they maintained strong social ties and were able to establish economic structures such as mutual aid societies and credit unions.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, more women arrived from China and the gender imbalance (and seedy reputation) of major cities' Chinatowns improved. The population of Chinese Americans began to rise and by 1950 it was higher than its earlier peak in 1890. Their children, like Jing-mei in "Two Kinds," were often expected to make significant strides up the American social and economic ladder.

Although immigrants escaped the anti-Chinese laws and overt prejudice that faced earlier generations, they still encountered a whole range of difficulties associated with biculturalism. According to E. D. Huntley, issues faced by these people included "cultural dislocation; the problems and challenges of integrating two cultures; intergenerational struggles within immigrant families; the conflict between acculturation and adherence to an ancestral tradition, and between assimilation and parochialism."

The conflicts and tensions associated with biculturalism are a recurring theme of Asian American literature. Tan's unique contribution to the literature is the articulation of the Chinese American woman's voice. Critics and social historians have noted that Chinese women are acculturated to silence and are unlikely to speak or write publicly about private experiences. Chinese American women writers, in Huntley's estimation, "have been largely but inadvertently responsible for the new and sudden popularity of Asian American writing, a development made even more startling because Chinese woman were an almost invisible minority in American society until the early 1950s."

Following the lead of Maxine Hong Kingston, Tan developed literary and narrative techniques such as the use of the "talk story," which allowed the individual experiences of the older generation of women to be expressed in mythic and symbolic terms. Tan's other major contribution to the genre is the use of many narrators in a single text, a device introduced earlier to American readers by Kingston in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

Despite her identification with other Asian American writers and the subject matter of her work, Tan is reluctant to be seen as a writer of ethnic American literature. In an interview with the on-line magazine Salon, Tan explained her position: "Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they're writing a very specific story." Nevertheless, the commercial and critical success of Tan's work is often credited with sparking a new interest among publishers and readers in Asian American writing.

In this story, the narrator, Jing-mei, resists her overbearing mother's desire to make her into a musical prodigy in order to compete with one of her friend's daughters. The narrator recalls these events after a period of more than twenty years and still struggles to understand her mother's motivations.

"Two Kinds" contains all the elements that won Tan the well-deserved praise she received for her first book. It exhibits her keen ear for the fractured English of the older generation (Tan was trained as a linguist, after all), and her sharp eye for detail in recreating the domestic scenery of mothers and daughters, especially in her descriptions of food and clothing.

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