Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"Two Kinds" is a short story from the book The Joy Luck Club. It's often called a novel, but it's really a collection of connected short stories.
This article begins with a summary and then looks at themes and a few other noteworthy elements.
Summary of "Two Kinds"
At nine-years-old the narrator, Jing-mei, was told by her mother that she could be a prodigy. Her mother believed that America offered endless opportunity. She arrived in the country in 1949, after losing her family, including twin baby girls, and her possessions in China.
The mother decides Jing-mei can be the Chinese Shirley Temple. They watch her movies carefully. Jing-mei is taken to get her hair done like Shirley's, but the beauty school trainee botches it. The instructor fixes it by giving Jing-mei a boy's haircut with slanted bangs.
Jing-mei is excited at the prospect of being a prodigy and becoming perfect.
Jing-mei's mother has a large collection of popular periodicals, collected from the homes of her cleaning clients. Every evening, her mother tests to see if Jing-mei has the same talent as one of the remarkable children featured.
They check if she knows all the state capitals, can multiply numbers in her head, can do card tricks, can balance on her head, can predict temperatures in major cities, can memorize pages of the Bible, and various other things.
Jing-mei falls short in every area. Her mother is disappointed, and Jing-mei starts hating the tests and expectations. She becomes uncooperative during the nightly tests, just going through the motions. The sessions become shorter until her mother gives up.
A few months pass. One day, they see a little Chinese girl playing the piano on The Ed Sullivan Show. The mother criticizes the performance and sees an opportunity for her daughter.
She soon arranges piano lessons for Jing-mei, as well as a piano to practice on daily in exchange for her housecleaning services. Mr. Chong is a retired piano teacher living in their apartment building. He looks ancient to Jing-mei. She doesn't want to play piano.
It turns out Mr. Chong is deaf and has poor sight. For the lessons, Mr. Chong points out a musical element and then plays it. Jing-mei plays it next. He teaches her how to keep the rhythm. She realizes she can make mistakes without him noticing.
Jing-mei learns the basics but doesn't put in the effort to get really good. She continues practicing for a year.
One day after church, Jing-mei's mother talks to her friend, Lindo Jong. Lindo's daughter, Waverly, has become known as a chess champion. Jing-mei's mother counters by bragging about her daughter's talent for music. Jing-mei decides to end her mother's foolish pride.
A few weeks later, the mother and Mr. Chong arrange for Jing-mei to play in a talent show in the church hall. By now, Jing-mei's parents have bought her a secondhand piano. She practices a simple piece without much focus, and a fancy curtsy.
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Her parents invite all their friends and acquaintances to the show. It begins with the youngest children.
Jing-mei is excited for her turn. This is her opportunity. She looks lovely. She's surprised when she hears the first wrong note. More follow and she feels a chill. She continues the piece through to the end as the sour notes pile up.
When Jing-mei finishes she's shaking. After she curtsies, the room is silent. Mr. Chong shouts "Bravo!", and the audience applauds lightly. Jing-mei returns to her seat. She's embarrassed and feels the shame of her parents. They stay for the rest of the show.
Afterward, the adults make vague comments about the performances. Waverly tells Jing-mei she isn't a genius like her.
Jing-mei's mother is devastated. She doesn't say anything on the bus ride home. When they get home, her mother goes to her bedroom without saying anything.
Jing-mei is surprised two days later when her mother tells her to practice. She thought her piano playing days were over. She refuses to play. Her mother drags her to the piano. There's shouting. Her mother says she has to be obedient. They're both angry. Jing-mei says she wishes she were dead, like the children her mother lost in China.
Her mother is deflated by the comment and leaves the room.
In the years that followed, Jing-mei disappointed her mother many times by underachieving. They never talked about the recital or the argument at the piano. She never played again. Jing-mei never asked her mother why she had given up.
When Jing-mei turns thirty, her mother offers her the piano. They have an exchange that echoes their views on Jing-mei's potential for genius. She doesn't take the piano right away, but appreciates the offer.
Last week, Jing-mei had the piano tuned. Her mother had died a few months before. She helps her dad get things in order. She takes a few old Chinese silk dresses home.
She tries the piano. She opens the piece she had played at the recital. It comes back to her quickly. She also plays the piece on the right side of the page. She realizes they're two halves of the same song.
Theme: The American Dream
The story establishes this theme in its first sentence: "My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America." The possibilities she imagines all entail material success:
- opening a restaurant,
- working for the government and retiring well,
- buying a house,
- becoming rich, and
- becoming famous.
All this opportunity is in stark contrast to her life in China, pre-1949. She suffered through World War II, enduring the loss of her parents and first husband and a near-fatal bout of dysentery. Her sickness led her to abandon her twin baby daughters in the hope it would give them a chance to live.
Despite saying there were various things a person could do in America, Jing-mei's mother, heavily influenced by American TV and magazines, only wants her to be a prodigy. She doesn't care what Jing-mei excels at, as long as she becomes the best at it and famous from it.
The potential for fame and achievement only seems to apply to Jing-mei. Her mother doesn't have these aspirations for herself or her husband. Jing-mei's mother wants to live the American dream through her daughter.
Theme: Identity and Being Yourself
The main conflict between Jing-mei and her mother is over her identity, who she is and who she will become.
Her mother wants her to be a prodigy. She makes it her aim to find the area where Jing-mei will excel. At first, Jing-mei's enthusiasm at least equals her mother's. This changes after the long series of nightly tests, all of which she fails: "I hated the tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations."
This is when Jing-mei first decides to assert herself: "I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be what I'm not."
Jing-mei resists her mother's influence from this point on. She coasts through her piano lessons, doing only what's needed to get by.
We see evidence that the mother doesn't accept who her daughter really is when she lies to Lindo Jong about Jing-mei's passion for music. This strengthens the girl's resolve to prove her mother wrong.
Her embarrassing performance is the catalyst for their final confrontation. Jing-mei's hurtful reference to her dead half-sisters moves her mother to give up her aspirations.
In the end, Jing-mei "wins" the battle and is able to be herself. (see Moderation, below) She falls short of expectations many times through her life.
Neither Jing-mei's path of least resistance nor her mother's extreme expectations are balanced.
Rather than embracing the many opportunities available in America, the mother only wants her daughter to be a famous prodigy. This outrageous expectation is "so large that failure was inevitable."
Likewise, Jing-mei's lack of effort guaranteed another kind of failure. She intentionally sabotaged her progress on the piano. It's noteworthy that when the time for the recital came, she wanted the reward that a great performance would bring. She didn't need to be a prodigy to play well, she only needed to put in enough work.
The mother's lack of moderation is also shown in her view that there are only two kinds of daughters: those who obey and those who don't. There's no middle ground. (See question #3, below)
Although Jing-mei "wins" the right to be herself, she starts to see herself as an underachiever. It's certainly possible that she developed a pattern of withholding her full effort just to prove she could.
It's easy to imagine how moderate expectations and a fair work ethic could have helped Jing-mei to do very well in any number of areas.
Theme: Talent and Effort
The story illustrates the importance of both talent and hard work.
The mother doesn't seem to grasp the distinction between the two. She believes someone can simply choose to be a prodigy. To become the best at something, as Jing-mei's mother wants, a talent for that thing is needed. Along with natural ability usually comes a desire to improve further.
We see this in the peripheral character Waverly Jong, who has become known as "Chinatown's Littlest Chinese Chess Champion." Her backstory isn't given in "Two Kinds" but we know from another story in The Joy Luck Club, "Rules of the Game", that Waverly took to chess quickly and was very interested in it. This led her to put in the effort of studying and learning from others. By age nine, she was closing in on grandmaster status.
In contrast, Jing-mei didn't show that kind of aptitude for anything she tried. She also wasn't interested enough in any of them to work hard.
Still, her talent for the piano seemed good. She learned the basics from a man who couldn't properly train her. After her failure at the recital, a woman said, "Well, she certainly tried." The reader knows that she didn't really try. You don't have to be a prodigy to perform well at a local talent show. It was Jing-mei's lack of effort, not a lack of talent, that led to this embarrassment.
However, it's likely that even with her full effort she would have fallen short of her mother's expectations. There's no indication that Jing-mei was a piano prodigy who simply refused to work hard. Her mother arbitrarily decided she had this talent because of a TV show.
1. Is there any symbolism in the story?
There are a few things that could be interpreted as symbolic:
- Jing-mei's reaction to her reflection after a failed test,
- the description of Jing-mei's feelings during the climactic argument,
- the piano,
- the Chinese silk dresses Jing-mei decides to keep, and
- the two songs from her music book.
We'll look at each of these in turn.
After a failed memorization exercise, Jing-mei sees the reflection of her ordinary face, which she tries to scratch out. Her mother sees her as ordinary and Jing-mei symbolically tries to erase her mother's standard. She replaces it with her own conception of a prodigy, a girl with a willful attitude who won't be changed.
When Jing-mei says she wishes she wasn't her mother's daughter, the words feel "like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of [her] chest." This is a fitting symbol for these angry words, as well as her wish to be dead like her half-sisters.
The piano seems to represent Jing-mei's mother's dreams and her certainty that her daughter is a genius. Likewise, the way Jing-mei goes through the motions of her lessons could represent her dissenting opinion. When Jing-mei's mother offers her the piano for her thirtieth birthday it's special significance is highlighted. Jing-mei directly states that she views the offer "as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed." It seems to represent the mother's belief in her daughter's potential. Jing-mei had wondered of her mother: "Why had she given up hope?" After offering the piano, the mother reiterates her belief that Jing-mei could have been a genius if she had only tried harder. It seems she hasn't given up after all.
While going through her mother's things, Jing-mei keeps some old Chinese silk dresses. In contrast, she didn't take several other items that she doesn't like. This could represent her acceptance of a part of her mother's influence. Perhaps she's found some balance at this point in her life.
Around this time, Jing-mei plays the piano for the first time in twenty years. She plays her recital song, "Pleading Child", and the song on the opposite page, "Perfectly Contented." She realizes "they were two halves of the same song." The first song could symbolize her earlier struggle, when she had to plead for her independence. The second one could represent where she is now, contented with who she is. The songs are two halves of one, just as Jing-mei is now a combination of her mother's influence and her own desires.
2. Is there any foreshadowing?
The strongest note of foreshadowing I noticed occurs as soon as it's decided Jing-mei will be a prodigy. Her mother wants to make her into a Chinese Shirley Temple. One of the first steps is to get her hair cut like Shirley's.
The haircut is botched. This is a bad sign in itself, but it's even worse than that. Jing-mei's hair ends up making her look like Peter Pan, a boy who ran away from his parents and who isn't known for his dedication or focus. This suggests Jing-mei's mother's plans will be frustrated.
3. What does the title imply?
The literal meaning of the title is made clear in the text when Jing-mei's mother says there are only two kinds of daughters: "Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind."
We also see that Jing-mei becomes a combination of two kinds of views or values: her mother's traditional Chinese ones and her own independent American ones. This culture clash is another prominent theme.