The Two Sides of a Heritage Coin
Amy Tanís story, "Two Kinds," part of a collection of stories called The Joy Luck Club, resembles a two-sided-coin. One side of the coin represents the mother, the motherís Chinese heritage, and the cold obedience she tries to instill in her daughter caused by her tragic past. The other side of the coin represents the daughter, the daughterís American heritage, and the endless indignation she uses against her mother in ignorance of her motherís tragic past and her own ties to Chinese heritage.
The mother, Suyuan Woo, speaks broken English, shows no emotion, and wants her daughter to be the best, a prodigy. All of these characteristics can be attributed to her former life in China. Tan skillfully creates the dialogue for the mother so the reader can pick up on her broken English and her Chinese dialect. For example, the mother says, "Just like you. Not the best. Because you not trying" (Tan 1210). Not only does Tanís use of choppy English help establish a distinctiveness for the motherís character, but it also demonstrates a stern voice that is incapable of showing emotion.
The mother immigrated from China during the post-World War II era with many aspirations about America that made her push her daughter to be something she was not. According to Jing-mei, the daughter,
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. America was where all my motherís hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. (1208)
The motherís great losses in China and the cold obedience instilled in her from her childhood are what make Suyuan Woo lack emotion in the raising of her disobedient daughter.
When the mother came to America, she saw fame as a window of opportunity for her daughter. She demanded that her daughter be a prodigy and pushed superficial identities like Shirley Temple, Peter Pan, Waverly Jong, being a genius, or being a pianist onto her independent-minded daughter. According to Peter Tavernise, a critic of ethnic literature, "Jing-mei cannot understand her motherís worship of American Ďsuccess,í but she suspects it may have something to do with the loss of her other daughters. Jing-meiís reaction is in direct contrast with her motherís, which states that Ďonly one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughterí" (5). Jing-meiís inability to understand her motherís idle worship of fame is what causes her to rebel against obedience, against being the best she can be, and against accepting the part of her that is Chinese.
Being born in America, Jing-mei assumed a very independent and disobedient type of behavior. She did not think of herself as a prodigy or anybody special which she repeatedly announces, for instance, "Unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me" (Tan 1214). Jing-mei intentionally defies her mother and constantly fails any task her mother presents to her, and the most notable of all her failures is the piano recital.
Along with her many failures, Jing-mei has used her motherís painful past as a way to torment her mother for trying to make her something she was not. It is Jing-meiís immaturity that causes her not to comprehend what happened to her mother and to discredit any significance of the Chinese blood that runs through her veins. Jing-mei says many things that hurt her mother; in one particular argument, Jing-mei says, "You want me to be someone that Iím not. Iíll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be"; then Jing-mei proclaims, "Then I wish I werenít your daughter. I wish you werenít my mother"; finally, Jing-mei yells the most spiteful thing she could think of, "Then I wish Iíd never been born! I wish I were I dead! Like them!" (Tan 1214). "Them" refers to her motherís twin baby girls who died back in China, and it is at this point that Jing-mei causes her mother the most pain and forsakes her own lineage.
Orville Shell believes that, "Part of Jing-meiís struggle is to distance herself from the kind of helpless obedience that she recognizes in traditional Chinese women [like her mother], and that she fears is manifesting itself in passivity in her own American life" (92). Jing-mei feels that this is what her mother is trying to instill in her, and this is what causes her to be so insubordinate. Peter Tavernise suggests that, Jing-mei "refuses categorically to allow her inner nature to be dictated by her Ďroleí or outside expectations of her. Her statement, ĎI could only be me,í reflects her reaction to extreme pressures to become what she is notí" (5). After Jing-meiís mother dies, she then realizes that she does have two sides to her own coin, one side is American and the other is Chinese.
Nancy Willard makes a fine point when she writes, "Amy Tanís special accomplishment in this novel is not her ability to show us how mothers and daughters hurt each other, but how they love and ultimately forgive each other" (98). Despite the motherís failed attempts to cultivate her daughter into a genius and the daughterís spiteful way of trying to be an individual, love and understanding still prevail in the end.
Amy Tanís heritage coin collection is completed now because all the sides of the coins are presented: the mother and daughter coin, Jing-meiís American heritage and Chinese heritage coin, and the coin that represents Suyuanís and Jing-meiís final peace. These coins represent the irony, pain, and sorrow of the imperfect ways mothers and daughters love each other and how their heritage can be an influentialcoin in itself.
Dorris, Michael. "Mothers and Daughters." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 59. Ed. Roger Matuz. Detroit: Gale, 1990.
Schell, Orville. " ĎYour Mother Is In Your Bonesí." Contemporary Short Criticism. Vol. 59. Ed. Roger Matuz. Detroit: Gale, 1990.
Tan, Amy. "Two Kinds." The Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 1208-1215.
Tavernise, Peter. "Fasting of the Heart: Mother-Tradition and Sacred Systems in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." America Online. Online. 15 Mar. 1998.
Willard, Nancy. "Tiger Spirits." Contemporary Short Criticism. Vol. 59. Ed. Roger Matuz. Detroit: Gale, 1990. 97-98.
Wang, Qun. The Joy Luck Club. Masterplots. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. Ed. Frank N. Magill. California: Salem Press, 1996. 3357.
A Motherís Prodigy Child
"Two Kinds," an excerpt from the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is about an immigrant Chinese mother raising her daughter in America. She expects her daughter to be a prodigy child, and she unintentionally creates a conflict between her and her daughter. The mother thinks that in America her daughter will have more opportunity to become a prodigy child. The mother pushes her daughter to be the best in anything and everything, and this makes the mother seem like the villain in the story; however, the mother just wants her daughter to have the life that she never had. Her daughter does not see her intentions.
Her mother thought opportunity was more hopeful in America, "America was where all my motherís hopes lay" (Tan 1208). The mother lost everything when she moved from China to San Francisco in 1949. In China she lost her family, her spouse, and she had to abandon her twin baby girls (Tan 1208). This implies that her mother had a difficult life and wanted to start a new life in America.
Unfamiliar with the customs of America, she had been brought up in a strict Chinese culture. Her mother probably raised her the same way, and therefore, that is where she learned her parenting skills. The Chinese life is strict, more so than the American life, and that was the only way the mother knew how to raise her daughter. The mother seemed to be the villain in the story, but she was only trying to be the caring parent the best way she knew how. She only wanted her daughter to be the best, but a conflict started when the daughter failed to meet her expectations.
In the beginning Jing-mei, the daughter, seemed to like being a prodigy because she thought she could become perfect and thought her mother would adore her. She became impatient when she could not become perfect fast enough. She soon realized that she had another prodigy side to her, a side she had never known before. She looked in the mirror and "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 wontís. I wonít let her change me, I promised myself. I wonít be what Iím not" (Tan 1209). From then on she resisted her mother and denied herself the chance to become anything she wanted, or at least anything her mother wanted.
As time went on, her mother seemed to give up hope until one day she decided that her daughter should start piano lessons. Every day Jing-mei was sent to piano lessons and every day she grew more and more determined not to be a good piano player. She did not want to give her mother the satisfaction of her doing well so she played any way she wanted. When it was time for the recital, "She started to believe that a prodigy side of her really did exist" (Beary 92). The recital was filled with errors and after that Jing-meiís attitude became worse.
Jing-mei thought that her mother would have forgotten about the piano lessons, but two days after the recital her mother told her it was time for piano lessons as though nothing had happened. She finally took a stand and resisted her motherís commands. She expressed to her mother that she could never be the daughter that she wants her to be (Tan 1214). Her mother replies that, "There are only two kinds of daughters. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!" (Tan 1214). A literary critic claimed that, "In a free society, the daughters are not free to fall short of their motherís expectations. And so even the most successful daughters are haunted by a sense of failure, and even the most determined mothers are dismayed to find their daughters repeating their own weakness" (Willard 84).
It is obvious that Jing-meiís mother is trying to "re-live" her life through her daughter. Her life was difficult and not the life one she wanted, but she was going to make sure that her daughter had a better life. Instead, her hopes and dreams of making her daughter into a prodigy were destroyed. She never mentioned the recital to her daughter again, and she stopped pushing her to become someone she was not.
Jing-mei failed her mother in many ways by not getting straight Aís or becoming class president or not getting into Stanford (Tan 1214). She states that "Unlike my mother, I did not believe that I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me" (Tan 1214). For her thirtieth birthday her mother showed her forgiveness by offering to give the piano to Jing-mei. Jing-mei saw that "Pleading Child," the piece of music she had played in the recital, was still there. She noticed for the first time that the piece on the right hand side was called "Perfectly Contented." Tan refers to these two songs as two halves of a whole (Beary 93). "Pleading Child" was shorter but slower; "Perfectly Contented" was longer but faster (Tan 1215).
"Pleading Child" could represent the fact that Jing-mei was pleading to be herself and not wanting to be forced to become someone she was not. The fact that is was shorter could mean that her pleading did not last forever because her mother finally realized she was not a prodigy child, while the time for forgiveness was slow. The "Perfectly Contented" symbolized how she was content with her motherís forgiveness. The fact that is was longer but faster could mean that it took a long time for forgiveness: "forgiveness was accepted" faster (Beary 93). This scene symbolizes how she felt as a child, and how she felt when she was an adult.
Although it seems that in "Two Kinds" the mother is the villain, she is really the victim of her own weaknesses. She tries too hard to better her own life through her daughter. She wanted to see her daughter become something better than what she had become. Instead of encouraging her daughter to become someone who she wanted to be, she ends up pushing her in the wrong direction. I think that Jing-mei finally realized why her mother did what she did. I agree with Ghymn when she states that "Jing-mei does care deeply what her mother thinks of her" (84). It is obvious that even though they were two kinds from two different cultures they still found forgiveness in the end.
Tan, Amy. "Two Kinds." The Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 1208-1215.
In Amy Tanís story "Two Kinds," the most obvious example of two kinds are the two kinds of daughters the mother identifies: obedient and the kind that follow their own minds. But there are other interesting other possibilities for two kinds. One is the pushy mother and the patient mother; another is the two songs, "Pleading Child" and "Perfectly Contented," which the daughter plays. These songs represent the feelings that the daughter, Jing-mei, has had throughout her life.
The mother in this story is pushy. She wants her daughter to become a child prodigy so badly she can practically taste it. She makes Jing-mei perform tests out of magazines to see if she could by some chance be one of those extraordinary children they are always reading about and watching on TV. Jing-mei has no interest in becoming a child prodigy; eventually gives up on these tests, and hence her mother gives up on them, too.
The mother also pushed Jing-mei to try and be something she wasnít in the way of looks. After watching Shirley Temple on TV, Jing-meiís mother took her down to the beauty training school so she could get her hair cut to look like a Chinese Shirley Temple. Well, like the tests, the haircut failed too. She ended up with an uneven, Peter Pan looking haircut. Jing-meiís mother said that she now "looked like Negro Chinese" as if it was her fault her hair ended up the way it did (1208).
After the first two attempts to make her daughter into a child prodigy, the mother is just about to give up on the idea that her daughter can be better than what she already is, when her last idea hits her. She was watching the Ed Sullivan show, when she saw a girl playing the piano. A couple of days after seeing the girl on TV, the mother told Jing-mei that she would now be taking lessons. Jing-mei did not want to have anything to do with her motherís plans for her to become a child prodigy, but goes along because she canít quite say no to her mother yet.
Soon after her lessons begin with Mr. Chong, she finds out that he is deaf. This means that he could not hear when she played a wrong note. So during her lessons, she purposely didnít try. And if she hadnít practiced enough, she could get away with it by just keeping a smooth, steady pace. She kept playing the wrong notes and he didnít even realize it: Mr. Chong just kept going on with the lessons.
About a year later, Mr. Chong and Jing-meiís mother wanted her to play in a talent show that was going to be held at the church. Jing-mei was going to play a piece called "Pleading Child." Her parents invited just about everyone they knew to come and watch their daughter in her moment of glory. When Jing-meiís time came to play her piece, she was so proud of the way she looked that she wasnít even worried about how she was going to sound. She walked up to the bench, sat down, and just started playing away. Then it hit her. She didnít know the piece, and just about every note she hit was wrong.
When she was finished, she knew what she had done had been awful. She stood up, did her curtsey, and slowly walked back to her seat. She tried not to cry as she felt every eye in the room fixed upon her, and as she endured the pain from some of the negative comments some people sitting around her made.
After the show was over, Jing-mei knew her embarrassment was not yet over. She still had to endure more pain from her parentsí friends, but worst of all her mother. Her mother, however, was silent. She said nothing of what had happened, and when they got home she just went straight to her bedroom without saying a word to anyone. Jing- mei now thought she was off the hook. She didnít think she would ever have to take another piano lesson again.
Two days after her performance in the talent show, however, her mother goes right back to pushing her to do things she does not want to do again, when she insisted that she continue with her lesson as usual. Jing-mei on the other hand had other plans. She did not want to play the piano anymore, and let it be known. She and her mother got into a huge fight, and it was only when Jing-mei brought up her motherís family that she had lost in China, and how she wished she was dead like them, that her mother did not force her to continue with the lessons.
In the years to come, Jing-mei disappointed her mother a number of times. She didnít get straight Aís. She didnít become class president. She not only didnít get into Stanford, she dropped out of college. Yet through all of the bad times, her mother loved her very much, and had now become more patient with her. Jing-meiís mother showed her affection when she offered Jing-mei the piano as sort of a peace offering, for her thirtieth birthday. At first Jing-mei didnít want to take it but later realized that she should.
The piano stayed at her parentís house for sentimental reasons, and a couple of months after Jing-meiís mother died, she sent a tuner over to their apartment. After she had the piano tuned she went over to the apartment to see it. She looked inside the bench and took out her old music that she had played at the talent show. It was the first time she looked at the song on the other page. It was called "Perfectly Contented." She tried to play it and realized they were two halves to the same song. It was the first time in a long time that she felt contented.
Ester Ghymn says that "Jing-mei does care deeply what her mother thinks of her. She feels her mother has indeed lost everything and is haunted by a sense of failure" (31 ). She does not like disappointing her mother, but feels she has no choice because her mother pushed her to hard to do things that she simply did not want to do. If her mother had just been a little more relaxed and not so caught up in her daughter becoming a child prodigy, then they would have had a better relationship. If parents push their children to do something they do not want to do, they may end up, like Jing-meiís mother, paying for it.
Ghymn, Ester. Images of Asian American Women by Asian American Women Writers. vol. 1. NY: Peter Lang 1995.
Tan, Amy, "Two Kinds." The Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. HarperCollins, NY: 1208-1215. 1991.
Mason, Mary. American Women Writers. Ed. Carol Green vol. 5. Continuum Publishing Co., New York 443-445. 1994
Willard, Nancy. Asian American Women Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia 1997.