Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed.
Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.
Summary of Work
Jing-Mei Woo introduces her mother as a woman who believes that people can be anything they want in America, that it is a land of opportunity and fresh starts. Her mother came to America after losing everything in China, her husband and children. She works as a maid in the US, and regularly brings home magazines containing information and stories about people’s genius children. She tests her daughter regularly for genius, starting by trying to make her Shirley Temple (ending with a terrible haircut that has to be cut off in a male, Peter Pan style, to save it) and ending with determining her daughter will learn to be a piano prodigy. By that time, Jing-Mei hates her mother and what she is putting her through, wondering why she won’t just let her be herself, ordinary. Her mother trades cleaning for piano lessons with the deaf Chinese man down the hall. When Jing-Mei learns he is deaf, she decides not to worry about making mistakes as long as she keeps with the rhythm. Since she practices over at the deaf man’s house for two hours a day, no one hears her making the mistakes.
Then, she hears her mother talking to a neighbor about how good of a piano player she is, and she decides to end that idea once and for all. When her parents put her in a talent show (by this time, they’ve saved up enough money to buy her a secondhand piano), she determines that even though the piece they’ve chosen for her, Pleading Child, is not hard, she will not work to memorize it or practice very hard. At the performance, she starts out beautifully, but then doesn’t know the right notes because of her lack of discipline and practice, and she humiliates herself and her parents. The only person in the crowd clapping is her deaf teacher. Her parents make her stay the whole talent show and talk to people afterward. A young chess prodigy who is her neighbor tells her she is not a genius, further humiliating her. She determines that this performance was the end of it, and she’ll never have to play piano again.
However, the next day, when four o’clock rolls around, her mother insists that she practice, dragging her over to the piano. She says she doesn’t want to play, and her mother tells her that she must because there are only two types of children, those who are obedient and those who follow their own path, and the only type of child in her home is obedient. Jing-Mei says that she wishes she weren’t her mother, and when that doesn’t get under her mother’s skin, she says she wishes she were never born or dead just like the rest of her family. This breaks her mother’s heart, and she never insists her daughter play piano again. Years later, she doesn’t get As in school, then doesn’t get into an ivy league college, and then drops out of college. Her mother never talks to her about the piano. Then, when Jing-Mei is in her thirties, her mother offers her the piano. Jing-Mei finds this to be some sort of offering of forgiveness. She never takes the piano, but does admire it. She tells her mother that she’s not sure she could even play it, and her mother says she’s sure she could, but the issue is the same: Jing-Mei never tried. When her mother dies, and she starts cleaning up her mother’s things for her father, she has the piano tuned and refurbished. Then she sits down and pulls out the old sheet music, and she finds herself playing pieces of the song she played so poorly as a child. Then she sees another song on the other half of the sheet music, and plays it, and she realizes that just as her mother said, they were two halves, two kinds.
Brief Note on Themes
Family relations, individual identity, and cultural expectations are the main themes running throughout this work. The mother-daughter relationship particularly highlights cultural expectations: while they are in America, the mother still holds the same social expectations for how the household will be run and how her child will act and behave. Jing-Mei is caught between two worlds as the daughter of an immigrant; she has her family’s culture and expectations, but she is also dealing with American cultural expectations. Her mother also holds some of those expectations in her version of the American Dream, thinking her daughter will be famous if she just works hard enough.
The story is a form of Bildungsroman, with the daughter not really fully coming to her own identity or of age until she can accept the gift of the piano and learn what her mother really wanted of her: for her to try to get better at something rather than simply accept a life without making an effort to better oneself. There is also a sense of cultural understanding and individual communication that happens in the final scene, where cultural barriers are broken down and Jing-Mei can really identify with her mother for the first time.