For many of us growing up, our mothers have been an integral part of what made us who we are. They comfort us in times when nothing seems to go right. They forgive us when no one else can. They provide for our needs and know what is best for us. But, most importantly, they love us with all of their hearts. In “Two Kinds,” Amy Tan uses symbolism to express the frustrating struggles between parents and children and the growing realization of individualism.
Jing-mei’s mother “believed [that] you could be anything you wanted to be in America”(Tan 288). She came to America “after losing everything in China…But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better” (Tan 288). She came from China to seek a better life for herself and her daughter; her persistence for her daughter to be a prodigy in her way of stabilizing Jing-mei’s life so that it does not turn out like hers. She sees the piano as her daughter’s chance to make something of herself that will give her the opportunity for a better life. To the mother, the piano symbolizes success and happiness.
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However, the mother sees that the only way to achieve success and happiness is through perfection; she pushes Jing-mei to become a prodigy. When Jing-mei started taking piano lessons, she “picked up the basics pretty quickly”(Tan 292). The fact that she effortlessly learns the basics shows that she has a natural-born talent and could have become a prodigy and make her mother’s dream come true. Additionally, when she plays the song more than twenty years later, she is “surprised at how easily” the notes came back to her; her natural talents are not affected by the massive period of not playing (Tan 296).
Usually, if a musician does not play for a while, they need some practice and get used to playing for some time before playing again. Jing-mei, on the other hand, remembers how to play the song and also plays it better than the previous times. Furthermore, although “in the beginning, [Jing-mei] was just as excited as [her] mother” and naively does everything she is told without hesitation, her excitement slowly deteriorates after failing many of her mother’s prodigy tests (Tan 289).
One night after another failed test and “after seeing [her]mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of [her] began to die. [she]hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations” (TAN 289). Her troubled feelings of inadequacy that her mother’s expectations created are exemplified through the desperation portrayed; her self-esteem decreases, and she begins to feel useless after the constant failures she undergoes. She sobs and says during an argument, “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!” She asks, “Why don’t you like me the way I am?” (Tan 291).
She begs her mother to accept her the way she is because she can not be someone she is not. Her desperation is also shown through the song “Pleading Child”; it represents the stage in her life where she does not want to learn how to play the piano and consistently argues with her mother. She fights for her own beliefs and wants her mother to know that she can not live the life that her mother dreams of. As she struggles with herself to become her person, she eventually decides that she is not going to let her mother change who she is, so she stops trying to be a prodigy by demonstrating her willfulness when she “performed listlessly,” and “pretended to be bored,” when presented with further tests (Tan 290).
Her headstrong attitude continues to stand in the way and keeps her from successfully learning to play the piano. Images of laziness are also shown throughout the story. For instance, during her piano lessons, Jing-mei learns that she can be “lazy” and get away with “lots of mistakes”(Tan 292). Jing-mei is not motivated and does not want to put any effort into learning how to play the piano; instead, she expects herself to instantly know how to play the piano perfectly in just one day. When she does not perfect it, she grows to detest playing. Jing-mei views the piano as a punishment; she is forced to do something she does not want to do and feels as if she has “been sent to Hell”(Tan 291).
The piano represents despair, punishment, and devastation; she “dawdled” over the piece she was supposed to play. A “simple” piece that “sounded more difficult than it was”(Tan 292). The word “dawdled” displays how she tries to waste time and have the piece drag on instead of having it flow. Also, “simple” is used to emphasize Jing-mei’s total lack of effort; she picks up the basics quickly yet cannot memorize a simple song. The story also depicts images of chaos and destruction. For example, when the author is playing the piano, she describes it by saying her hands are “bewitched”(Tan 293).
Her hands are uncontrollable and result in her inability to correct her mistakes. Therefore, she is bound to fail. Furthermore, “bewitched” tends to have a negative connotation and leads a reader to believe that something terrible will happen and so a reader is lead to believe that failure is what Jing-mei will face. Another example is when Jing-mei walks back to her seat, she mentions that she knows the eyes “burning” into her back (Tan 293). As a result, the audience looks at her degradingly as if she had committed a crime.
Furthermore, when the show ends, people come up to her “like gawkers at the scene of an accident” (Tan 294). Tan compares the show with an accident scene to show readers that the audience stares at Jing-mei in disbelief because they can not believe that she plays so horribly in a confident manner. Lastly, the song Jing-mei plays at the end of the story represents the state she is in right now; she is finally in agreement with her mother, and she is happy with who she is and what she has.
The two songs she plays at the end both start with the same initials, “P.C.”; the relationship between them is revealed, and the reader can see that they are closely connected. Also, Amy Tan moves on from “Pleading Child” to “Perfectly Contented” to show the drastic transition in Jing-Mei’s life; the author confirms the connection when she states, “I realized they were two halves of the same song” (Tan 296). In other words, they are two halves of the same person/life.
- Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” Making Literature Matter. Eds. John Schilb & John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2009. Pg#288-296. Print.