Two Kinds Summary

"Two Kinds" is a short story by Amy Tan that explores the conflict between Jing-mei, a first-generation American, and her mother, a Chinese immigrant 

  • Jing-mei’s mother wants her to become a child prodigy, but Jing-mei resents her mother’s lofty expectations.
  • Jing-mei’s mother arranges for her to take piano lessons, but Jing-mei takes advantage of her teacher’s blindness and deafness to avoid practicing. 
  • Jing-mei performs terribly at a talent contest, but her mother still insists that she keep practicing. Frustrated, Jing-mei exclaims that she wishes she was dead, shocking her mother and ending the effort to make her into a prodigy.

Summary

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Last Reviewed on August 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281

Introduction

“Two Kinds” is a short story by Amy Tan, and it is one of the sixteen interconnected short stories that comprises Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. “Two Kinds” was first published independently as a short story in Atlantic Monthly in 1989, one month prior to the publication of The Joy Luck Club. Much like Tan’s other works, “Two Kinds” presents a semi-autobiographical look into the experiences of Chinese and Chinese American women, with a focus on intergenerational conflict. The protagonist, Jing-mei, is a first-generation American, and she narrates the story as a retrospective look back on her childhood in the wake of her mother’s death. Her mother, who immigrated to the United States from China in order to escape the Chinese Communist Revolution, pressured a young Jing-mei to become a child prodigy. Jing-mei resented this pressure, and her relationship with her mother was plagued by miscommunication and unspoken tension as a result.

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Plot Summary

“Two Kinds” is Jing-mei Woo's reflection on her mother’s efforts to make her into a child prodigy. Jing-mei’s mother left China under traumatic circumstances in 1949, leaving behind her entire family, including her two infant daughters. After settling in San Francisco, California, she fully embraced the attitude that anything was possible in the United States. She tried to instill this belief in Jing-mei by telling her that she can be a child prodigy.

Jing-mei’s mother’s initial efforts to make Jing-mei into a child prodigy involve trying to make her into a “Chinese Shirley Temple.” This results in Jing-mei receiving a “peter pan” haircut after an apprentice hairdresser fails to give her curls like Shirley Temple. Jing-mei dreams of one day becoming the “perfect” prodigal daughter that her mother believes she can be. However, she worries that if she does not discover her hidden talents soon, her inner prodigy will “disappear” and she will “always be nothing” in her mother’s eyes. 

Every night after dinner, Jing-mei and her mother look at magazines featuring stories about amazing children. Jing-mei’s mother quizzes her on various topics—including state and national capitals, complicated mathematics, and weather prediction—in hopes that she might possess a talent like the children in the stories. As time passes, Jing-mei becomes increasingly distressed by the “raised hopes and failed expectations” that the quizzes represent. One night, she looks in the mirror and is overcome with grief at the sight of herself. She worries that she will always be ordinary, and considers herself sad and ugly. However, this grief quickly turns into anger, and she embraces her feelings of resentment, vowing to never allow her mother to change her. 

From this point onwards, Jing-mei stops putting effort into her mother’s tests, instead listlessly daydreaming until her mother gives up. Eventually, her mother stops bringing up Jing-mei’s apparent prodigious potential. All that changes, however, when her mother sees a young Chinese girl perform a piano recital on the Ed Sullivan Show. Jing-mei’s mother’s hopes for her daughter are rekindled by the resemblance between the young piano prodigy on the television and Jing-mei. Jing-mei initially does not pay much attention to her mother’s newfound hopes, believing that their family is too poor to afford something as expensive as piano lessons. But her mother is determined and arranges to clean the apartment of Mr. Chong, a retired piano instructor, in exchange for piano lessons for Jing-mei.

Jing-mei resents her mother’s actions and refuses to take her piano lessons seriously. She quickly learns that Mr. Chong is both deaf and nearly blind, meaning that he is incapable of assessing whether or not she is playing well. Jing-mei takes advantage of Mr. Chong’s inability to gauge her progress and refuses to practice or improve her playing. Jing-mei admits that, had she applied herself, she may have actually become a decent pianist, but she was so determined not to “be anybody different” that she refused to put in the effort necessary to improve.

Approximately a year after Jing-mei begins her lessons with Mr. Chong, she overhears her mother talking with her friend Lindo Jong after church. Lindo’s daughter Waverly is a chess prodigy who has earned minor fame for her abilities, and Lindo often brags about Waverly’s accomplishments. Jing-mei’s mother in-turn brags about Jing-mei’s supposed musical prowess, which infuriates Jing-mei, as she knows her mother’s pride is misplaced. Soon after, Jing-mei’s mother and Mr. Chong enter Jing-mei into a talent competition at which she is expected to showcase her piano skills.

Jing-mei does not practice the piece she is supposed to play for the talent show, instead spending her time daydreaming and practicing the elegant curtsey that accompanies the performance. Her parents invite all of their friends to the talent show to witness Jing-mei’s musical debut. Jing-mei is not nervous, despite not having practiced at all, confident that her long-awaited inner prodigy will emerge during the performance. She imagines the audience giving her a standing ovation and daydreams about appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. However, her confidence proves misplaced; her performance is disastrous, and both Jing-mei and her parents are humiliated.

Jing-mei spends the ride home from the talent show waiting for her mother to yell at her. However, the anger she expected never comes. Instead, her mother resumes life as though nothing had happened. Jing-mei is shocked when, two days later, her mother expects her to continue practicing the piano. Jing-mei expected the disastrous talent show to represent the end of her piano lessons, and she is frustrated by her mother’s insistence that she continue practicing. Jing-mei defiantly refuses to begin her piano practice, prompting her mother to physically force her towards the piano. 

Jing-mei frustratedly exclaims that she will never be the type of daughter that her mother wants her to be, to which her mother responds that there are only two types of daughters: those who are obedient and those who are willful. Jing-mei’s mother asserts that only obedient daughters are welcome in her house. Jing-mei angrily exclaims that she wishes she wasn’t her mother’s daughter. Sensing her mother’s mounting anger, Jing-mei decides to push her over the edge; she shouts that she wishes she was dead, just like the infant daughters her mother had been forced to leave behind in China. This outburst stuns her mother into silence, and from that point on, her mother never forces her to practice the piano again. 

Jing-mei remarks that she has since disappointed her mother in a variety of ways, including by dropping out of college. However, they have never discussed either the disastrous piano recital or the argument that took place in the aftermath. Jing-mei assumes that her mother has given up on her, but on her thirtieth birthday, Jing-mei’s mother offers her the piano they bought for her when she was young, expressing her belief that if Jing-mei so chose, she could still “be a genius.” Jing-mei views this interaction as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she feels as though she has reclaimed a “shiny trophy.”

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Jing-mei helps her father pack up her mother’s belongings. Jing-mei handles the items with care, and she hires a tuner to recondition the old piano. She opens her old music books and attempts to play the piece she performed at the recital, Schumann’s “Pleading Child.” She then notices the piece on the opposite page of the book, “Perfectly Contented.” After playing both songs a few times, she comes to recognize them as two halves of the same song.

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