Two Kinds Themes

The main themes in “Two Kinds” are parental expectations, the American Dream, and identity. 

  • Parental expectations: The disconnect between Jing-mei’s desires and her mother’s expectations leads to conflict and resentment. 
  • The American Dream: Jing-mei and her mother have disparate versions of what the American Dream is, with Jing-mei’s mother dreaming of success and prosperity, while Jing-mei embraces individuality and freedom.
  • Identity: Jing-mei’s struggle to remain true to herself highlights the generational and cultural gap between herself and her mother.


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Parental Expectations

Parents, and perhaps especially immigrant parents, often project their own desires and hopes onto their children. Typically, such projections stem from the desire for their children to have good lives, and Jing-mei’s mother remarks that she only ever wanted Jing-mei to try her hardest for her own sake. Jing-mei’s mother sacrificed everything in order to come to the United States, and understandably, she wants Jing-mei to take advantage of the opportunities available to her. However, her insistence that Jing-mei be successful and talented often comes across as self-serving, as with her competitive bragging with Lindo Jong. Jing-mei comes to resent the idea that her mother is using her to bolster her own sense of “foolish pride,” and she sets out to “put a stop to it.” 

Jing-mei does not start out resentful of her mother’s hopes for her. She is initially excited by the prospect of being a child prodigy and dreams of someday becoming the “perfect” daughter whom everyone loves and admires. However, her mother’s high expectations eventually become burdensome and negatively impact Jing-mei’s self-esteem. She views her lack of apparent genius as a source of failure and disappointment. Her grief over recognizing herself as “ordinary” transforms into anger toward her mother, whose expectations were so lofty that Jing-mei believes they could only ever have been disappointed. Ultimately, although Jing-mei’s mother only wanted what was best for her daughter, her belief in Jing-mei’s potential genius only served to damage their relationship and discourage Jing-mei from putting effort into anything. Their story thus highlights the dangers of parental expectations that are out of sync with children’s desires. 

The American Dream

The American Dream has beckoned immigrants to the United States for generations, with promises of wealth, prosperity, equality, and opportunity. People like Jing-mei’s mother, who are fleeing violent and dangerous circumstances, view the United States as a land of boundless possibilities. This leads many immigrant parents to hold their children to incredibly high standards so that they might take advantage of the opportunities that their parents did not have. As a result, many immigrants cherish the American Dream not so much for themselves but for their children. Jing-mei’s mother left behind everything—her parents, her husband, her home, and her infant daughters—to come to the United States, and so she places all of her hopes for the future on Jing-mei. Jing-mei remarks that her mother “never looked back with regret” on her past, highlighting just how much faith her mother has in the American Dream. 

Jing-mei struggles to understand her mother’s belief that anything is possible in the United States. On account of having been born and raised as an American, Jing-mei does not have the same relationship to the American Dream as her parents. Instead, she understands the limitations present in American society and struggles to define herself as an individual within a Chinese cultural enclave that demands obedience and respect from children. For Jing-mei, the American Dream has less to do with material wealth or status and more to do with expressions of individuality and the right to be unapologetically herself. 


Themes of personal and cultural identity are central to many immigrant narratives, as people endeavor to balance their existing sense of self with their new surroundings. This challenge is only exacerbated by intergenerational differences, as children born in the United States often struggle to feel connected to the customs and values of their parents. For Jing-mei’s mother, living in the United States is a dream that she fought and sacrificed for; therefore, her desire for Jing-mei to become an American success story is deeply rooted in her identity as an immigrant. For all that she values the opportunities presented by living in the United States, Jing-mei’s mother also maintains many of her culturally Chinese values and customs, expecting obedience from her daughter and refusing to discuss her personal traumas and emotions. 

By contrast, Jing-mei struggles to relate to her mother’s values and ways of communicating. She cannot understand her mother’s fixation on having her become a child prodigy because she was born in the United States and does not regard it with the same sense of boundless opportunity that her mother does. Jing-mei exemplifies the struggle of many first-generation Americans to balance their ethnic heritage with their American values. The struggle is often twofold, as their racial identity bars them from fitting in with White American society, while their Americanized values prevent them from identifying fully with their parents’ culture. 

The theme of identity in “Two Kinds” is also explored at the level of the individual. When it becomes clear that she is not a child prodigy, Jing-mei becomes fixated on establishing a sense of identity that is divorced from her mother’s lofty expectations. As a result, she comes to value the “right to fall short of expectations” and refuses to put effort into playing the piano on the principle that she does not wish to be anything other than what she is. Rather than striving to please her mother or gain the approval of others, Jing-mei decides not to let anyone else change her. Though her stubborn insistence prevents her from becoming a piano prodigy or graduating college, it also gives her the necessary strength to carve out her own identity in a world that asks her to define herself based on artificial notions of success. 

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