What does Jing-mei want for herself in the story "Two Kinds"? Jing-mei is constantly being asked things of her by her mother. What does she want for herself?
What Jing-mei wants for herself in Amy Tan’s short story “Two Kinds” is explicitly stated in these lines she recounts early on:
And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me—a face I had never seen before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so that I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. She and I were the same. 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 what I'm not.
It is very useful to note the use of the negative here, Jing-mei does not tell us who she will be or what she wants for herself, rather she tells us what she does not want for herself. As a child of immigrants caught between two cultures, this “does not want” is critical in Jing-mei’s discovery of her own hopes and dreams.
Jing-mei feels suffocated by the burden of her mother’s expectations and tries out many selves to be someone who can make her mother proud, from a “Chinese Shirley Temple” to a precocious magician who can find the Queen in any deck of cards to a piano-playing prodigy. She knows that her mother’s expectations aren’t just a garden-variety over-ambitious mother’s demands on her child. Jing-mei’s mother is an immigrant who believes “you could be anything you wanted to be in America.” As Jing-mei notes, “America is where her hopes lay.” Crushed under these demands for perfection, Jing-mei finally explodes and makes a surprising discovery: what she wants for herself is very different from what her mother wants. As the story progresses, Jing-mei begins to form her identity in opposition to her mother, failing her at every turn by abandoning the piano and not “getting straight A’s.” But though we now know that all Jing-mei wants is the freedom to her herself, we still don’t know what form that self is to take. We—the reader and Jing-mei herself – only learn this by and by.
At one level, Jing-mei’s discovery of herself is defined by the tension between her Chinese identity, which about tradition, community, and filial obedience, and her American identity, which is about the individual self and willfulness. The cost of sticking to tradition is losing the self, while that of willfulness is being self-centered. In rejecting her mother’s expectations, Jing-mei also seems to be choosing her individualistic American identity over her Chinese self. But in rejecting the Chinese part, is Jing-mei also losing a part of herself? It is only at the very end of the story that we see Jing-mei fully be herself. The old piano she was once forced to practice, symbolic so far of the weight of her mother’s expectations and Jing-mei’s own failures, now becomes something else. Jing-mei no longer fears the piano, choosing instead to sit in front of it, open its lid and touch the keys. “It sounded even richer that I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano . . . I played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me,” she says. The “prodigy side” of Jing-mei makes her finally understand that she is both her identities, and “two kinds” of daughter after all, Chinese and American. She becomes truly herself when she gracefully accepts her past, rather than fighting it.