Critical Essay On Two Kinds

In Two Kinds by Amy Tan we have the theme of hope, identity, rebellion, responsibility, blame, independence and acceptance. Narrated in the first person by a woman called Jing-mei Woo the story is a memory piece and after reading the story the reader realises that Tan may be exploring the theme of hope. Jing-mei’s mother has hopes for her daughter. She wants her to be famous or at least to be a prodigy. She devotes a lot of her energy in trying to make Jing-mei into something that Jing-mei isn’t. Something which would play on the theme of identity. It is also interesting that Jing-mei’s mother believes that once you live in America you can be anything. This may be important as Jing-mei’s mother appears to be chasing the American dream. However she is doing so through Jing-mei. If anything she is living her life vicariously. There is also no doubting that Jing-mei’s mother is a hard working woman however she doesn’t seem to realise that not every child is a prodigy and Jing-mei herself probably understands that she is not a prodigy. Though at times she aspires to be one. Which may be the case for many children. To have the aspirations that they too can be seen to be special or gifted or different from their peers. What child would not like the focus to be placed on them? Particularly if the spotlight placed on them is positive. Each and every child likes to be thought of as special. However the definition for special is different for each parent.

Jing-mei’s mother also appears to be boastful about Jing-mei’s talents. It is not so much that she is proud of Jing-mei’s achievements it is more a case that she wishes to be better than others. Which is understandable considering that she has had a hard life. Losing a husband and children while in China. However there does not seem to be any type of reality check when it comes to Jing-mei’s mother. It is okay to have a child of average ability, which Jing-mei is, however that is not good enough for Jing-mei’s mother. It is as though she wants to distance herself from the pain of her past and the only way she knows how to do that is by forcing Jing-mei into being something she is not. Which again plays on the theme of identity. Jing-mei’s relationship with her mother is strained due to her mother’s wishes that Jing-mei be something that she either is not or will never be.

It is inevitable that Jing-mei is going to rebel against her mother. It is as though she is forced to after her efforts at the talent contest. Jing-mei doesn’t want to accept responsibility for her own actions and the fact that she played badly. She wants her mother to give out to her. To start an argument with her in order that Jing-mei can blame her mother. When the reality is that Jing-mei set the bar too high for herself just like her mother has. It is also interesting that Old Chong is the only one that claps for Jing-mei at the talent contest. His actions show loyalty regardless of how badly Jing-mei played. If anything the talent contest acts as the catalyst for Jing-mei to gain independence from her mother. She knows that she may not be good enough to be a prodigy and the embarrassment that she felt at the talent contest has in some ways shattered her confidence. It is easier for Jing-mei to give up than pursue something that she may not necessarily hit the mark for (a prodigy).

It is also interesting that Jing-mei doesn’t play the piano again. Not till her mother dies. It is possible that her confidence took a sufficient knock that playing the piano became impossible to Jing-mei. It acts as a constant reminder of her own failings. The end of the story is also interesting as Tan appears to be exploring the theme of acceptance. By having Jing-mei play the piano in her parent’s house Tan may be suggesting that despite what had happened when she was a young girl Jing-mei no longer has any ill will towards her mother. The two pieces she plays at the end also act as symbolism. The first piece the ‘Pleading Child’ in many ways mirrors how Jing-mei felt as a child. Pressurised by her mother to be something she wasn’t. While the second piece ‘Perfectly Contented’ suggests exactly that. That Jing-mei is content in her life. She may have had a childhood she did not wish for but she also appears to have found acceptance. Jing-mei knows who she is. Jing-mei’s mother wanted the best for her daughter. Though unfortunately for her Jing-mei was on a different path. Jing-mei was always going to disappoint her mother no matter what she did as a child. In reality the hopes and aspirations that Jing-mei’s mother had for Jing-mei were really her own hopes and aspirations. She was living her life through Jing-mei.


McManus, Dermot. "Two Kinds by Amy Tan." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 11 Oct. 2017. Web.

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‘Two Kinds’ is the last story in the second segment of Amy Tan’s highly popular debut book, The Joy Luck Club. The book is divided into four interconnected segments with each of them containing a group of stories which can stand alone themselves. While the author had intended the book to be a short-story collection, it is seen by critics as a novel due to the interrelated and cohesive narrative. Similar to other stories in the collection, ‘Two Kinds’ is a depiction of complexities in mother-daughter relationships in San Francisco’s China-town. The focus of the story is the often disruptive but inevitable “distance between mothers who were born in China before the communist revolution and thus have been cut off from their native culture for decades, and their American-born daughters who must negotiate the twin burdens of their Chinese ancestry and American expectations for success”. While the protagonist and narrator of the story Jing-mei persistently thwarts her mother’s aspirations to make her a musical prodigy, it was only decades later in life that she gains insight into her mother’s underlying motives. This essay will strive to support the view that ‘Two Kinds’ is a powerful expose on the problems of identity and community in twentieth century America. Author Amy Tan explores this sensitive and highly relevant aspect of this multicultural nation by employing sophisticated literary tools without compromising on the readability.

At the root of the story is the interpersonal dissonance that the phenomenon of mass immigration creates. In Two Kinds, Amy Tan builds up the romantic concept of cultural origins and lost ethnic essence in order to radically undermine and reconfigure the notion of an ethnic essence. The mother-daughter relationship is symbolized by the analogy of native-foreigner. For instance, “the narrative of separation and return— symbolized by Jing-Mei Woo’s return to China/mother—on the plot level is questioned by the rhetorical structure of the text which undercuts any notions of simple identification of origins or of a cultural “reality” easily available for access” (Bloom, 2001).

Jing-mei’s narrative keeps alive a memory of the past and creates a community. Two Kinds adds its own version of femininity and ethnicity to the wider narrative. Moreover, in Two Kinds, two different aspects of immigrant life is presented. First, the emphasis is on the loss of separation from mothers, and later the emphasis shifts to the ensuing competitiveness of the relationship. In the words of Amy Tan scholar Harold Bloom,

“we have Jing-Mei Woo, the Chinese-American daughter who wishes to understand and unite with the memories of her dead mother. On the other hand, we have immigrant Chinese mothers who project their cultural anxieties on their daughters. Waverly Jong’s mother, for instance, parades her daughter’s chess trophies and lectures to her about winning tournaments while Suyan Woo tries unsuccessfully to create a musical child prodigy out of her unmusical daughter Jing-Mei Woo”. (Bloom, 2001)

The apparent folly of Mrs. Woo’s aspirations for her daughter can be learnt from her dogmatic belief that America is the Land of Opportunity. She places unreasonable expectations on the shoulders of her young, tender daughter. While she may not exactly know where her daughter’s prodigal talents lie, she is nevertheless adamant that her daughter is destined for greatness, by virtue of having been born in America. First, Mrs. Woo tries to model her daughter into a famous actress, but that fails abjectly. Then she puts Jing-mei through general knowledge tests. Young Jing-mei doesn’t show promise in this area, either. Finally, her mother hits upon the answer: Jing-mei will be a piano virtuoso. This time too, the decision been arrived without rationale and conviction. (Huntley, 1998)

Tan juxtaposes the instances giving rise to generational tensions alongside a broader theme of American Dream. For example, Waverly Jong feels that her mother leeches off her chess achievements with an appropriating pride, while Jing -mei feels her mother, compelled by a competition with Waverly’s mother as well as the misplaced assumption that in America one could achieve anything, pushes her beyond her abilities, at least beyond her wishes. The familiar cry “You want me to be someone that I’m not!” accelerates to “I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother.” and finally to “I wish I’d never been born! . . . I wish I were dead! Like them.” The “them” are the other daughters her mother had been forced to abandon in China. This story of Jing-mei moves toward the kind of muted conclusion typical of most of the daughter stories: “unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me.” There is the sense that this “me” lacks some vital centering, the cultural force that would provide its chi.

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