A Clash of Intentions
“Two Kinds” by Amy Tan is the story of Jing-mei, a Chinese-American girl whose mother believes that by living in America anyone can be anything they want to be, and so is determined to find hidden talent in her daughter. Jing-mei is repeatedly tested to reveal any kind of talent but continually disappoints not only her mother, but herself as well and becomes determined not to try to have any talent at all. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Jing-mei as an adult looking back on her childhood, and reveals the theme that one can’t force their ambitions on another and expect perfection. The reader sympathizes with the girl’s excitement early on, triumphs with her as she finds her will to be herself, and shares her regret as she looks back as an adult. Jing-mei’s point of view emphasizes the story’s theme by showing us how as a child she dealt with her mother’s expectations and disappointment in her when she refused to be forced to become something she was not.
As Tan describes Jing-mei’s excitement early in the story, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with the girl and understand her excitement because she’s seeking the approval of her parents. She feels like her father doesn’t notice her. “‘That was somethin’ else,’ said my father, and I wondered if he was referring to me in a humorous way, or whether he even remembered what I had done” (Tan 1227). Her mother is so sure that anyone can be anything that Jing-mei is also certain that she is waiting in the wings to emerge as a prodigy child, envisioning herself living the ideal life, and she knows this will gain the approval of both her parents. “My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to sulk for anything” (Tan 1222). The reader gets the sense that Jing-mei is anxious to magically emerge as a prodigy child in anticipation of a really great life, and the reader can also sympathize because this is excitement experienced by a child who doesn’t realize the rarity of a child prodigy.
Tan creates a mood of triumph-over-despair when Jing-mei finally breaks down from seeing her mother’s constant disappointment at her failure to become instantly talented. “And after seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die” (Tan 1223). The girl cries and screams angrily in the mirror because she feels she is nothing but ordinary, but her vision of herself changes right then to one of power and willfulness, and the reader feels the girl’s triumph when she recognizes this new side of herself in the mirror. “I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not” (Tan 1223). This was a line of demarcation for Jing-mei, because she felt she had moved on from her failures and would now take a stand against her mother. After her mother had arranged for Jing-mei to have piano lessons, Jing-mei stood her ground. “…I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns” (Tan 1225-1226). The girl goes from being sad and overwhelmed, to confident in her ability to remain ordinary.
The reader can feel Jing-mei’s regret as an adult looking back on her actions as a child, because after Jing-mei’s first piano recital is a disaster because she refused to try hard at practicing, she mistakenly thinks her mother has given up hope and has accepted her as ordinary. She realizes that was a mistake when the next day her mother tells her to practice her piano. Jing-mei refuses, so her mother drags her to the piano bench where the two have a terrible argument and Jing-mei lashes out to push her mother’s temper over the edge. “And I could sense her anger rising to its breaking point. I wanted to see it spill over” (Tan 1228). Afterward, her mother is stunned and leaves the room. This sets the tone for the rest of Jing-mei’s childhood, and she continues to fail her mother by not being the best at anything. The reader senses more regret when as an adult Jing-mei realizes that she cheated herself. “So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance” (Tan 1225). Jing-mei’s point of view as an adult causes the reader to feel her regret, not just for cheating at piano lessons, but for being hurtful to her mother as well.
Because Jing-mei’s mother kept trying so hard to find a prodigy in her daughter and did not hide her disappointment from the girl, Jing-mei’s point of view was that her mother was trying to make her be something she wasn’t, which reinforces the idea that one can’t force their ambitions on someone else and expect perfection. Sadly Jing-mei spent the rest of her childhood proving that point rather than trying hard to achieve anything else. The story’s original, ironic title brings out the point that there are two kinds of daughter—the obedient kind and the not obedient kind according to Jing-mei’s mother. The point that was lost on her is that there are many kinds of daughter, and just because Jing-mei wasn’t living up to her mother’s idea of perfection through talent, the girl was perfectly unique in her own way. There are myriad kinds of daughter—the free to be unique—which is another good thing you get bringing up children in America. She would have done better to cherish Jing-mei for who she was rather than try to force her to be like someone else.
Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. 7th ed.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 1222-1230.