Amy Tan’s ‘Two Kinds’ is a short story about the relationship between a Chinese-American mother and her American daughter. Two Kinds is a chapter from Tans book, “The Joy Luck Club”, which is made up of sixteen stories about Tan growing up in America with a mother from ancient Chinese customs (Tan, 189). In this chapter, Tan describes her childhood not with emphasis on cultural differences, but as a girl trying to find herself all the while in constant conflict with her Chinese-American mother’s desire for her to become extraordinary.
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Further research reveals to the reader that Daisy, Amy Tan’s mother, is her influence for writing. Daisy a child-survivor of Nanjing came to America in 1949 at the age of 18 leaving behind three daughters to escape communism and abuse (unknown, 2010). Daisy raised Tan as a Chinese mother with Chinese customs is expected to by using harsh words of warning to motivate greatness. Tan’s exposition of the story appears in the beginning with “you could” phrases that introduce the reader to the mother. “You could open a restaurant. You could become instantly famous. You can be best anything” (Tan, Two Kinds, 2012, p. 336). The reader is intrigued in the first three paragraphs as it is clear this mother, the static character throughout this story, expects no less than excellence.
The first person narrator is the dynamic character of this story, Jing-mei. She is also the protagonist in an ongoing struggle for independence with her mother who is the antagonist. Jing-mei struggles to find who she is. At first, she convinces herself that if she hurries, she can fulfill her mother’s expectations and “would soon become perfect” (Tan, Two Kinds, 2012, p. 336). However, the child-narrator in her coming-of-age attitude sets the tone for the battle-of-wills when she thinks the mother is “beginning to give up hope” (337). Jing-mei continues this battle “determined not to try” (p. 338) and “determined to put a stop to her foolish pride” (p. 339). The mother-daughter climatic moment occurs when Jing-mei selfishly yells “You want me to be someone that I’m not” (p. 339). Tan allows the mother to invoke her position in the relationship with her reply of “Only two kinds of daughters. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter” (p.339).
Tan increases the mother-daughter conflict using dramatic visualization as Jing-mei repeatedly defies the mother’s with the use of words like “disappointed”, “failed expectations”, “I had been sent to hell” and “I wish I were dead” (Tan, Two Kinds, 2012, pp. pp. 337-339). The mother’s comments to her daughter “because you not trying” (p. 337) and “only ask you be your best” (p. 337) poses a dilemma for the reader of whether to feel sympathy for the mother or daughter.
What the daughter perceives as being an unsatisfied and disappointed mother is Tan’s use of situational irony. It is not until the end of this short story that the daughter realizes that her mother was not controlling or demanding for the sake of Chinese custom, but was only exhibiting a mother’s enduring hope that her daughter would be someone great. Tan affirms this near the end as the mother reminds her thirty year-old daughter “you could been genius if you want to” (Tan, Two Kinds, 2012, p. 340).
The pivotal moment of the story occurs in the last paragraph as the daughter “for the first time” notices the music pieces she rehearsed as a child (Tan, Two Kinds, 2012, p. 340). Tan dramatizes the irony further when Jing-mei, after the death of her mother, notices the two songs on the piano, “Pleading Child” (p. 340) and “Perfectly Contented” (p. 340) that are symbolic of the daughter’s growth from a child to an adult. She realizes the pieces “were two halves of the same song” (p. 340) just as she and her mother were. As the mother’s character was seemingly over-bearing, she and her mother wanted the same thing; both wanted the best in life for Jing-mei.
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Tan’s chronological organization of the story allowed the reader to see the conflicts emerge and resolve as Jing-mei grew into an adult. This story was not about the cultural differences between Chinese and Americans as one might expect, but more about a mother-daughter relationship. Tan writes “because it is about the meaning of my life” (Tan, NEA Big Read: Meet Amy Tan, 2010). When we read this story as a chapter in “The Joy Luck Club”, “Two Kinds” completes Tan’s collection of stories that are about hope and the way she looked at the world (2010).
I liked this story because I connected with Jing-mei at first and felt sorry for her. However, half way through the story, I began to feel sad for the mother after Jing-mei began behaving selfishly and defiantly by not trying. As short as the story was, it created a momentary emotional struggle for me. At first I could not understand why the mother would force a child into extracurricular activities of which she had no interest. I thought perhaps the mother, given Amy Tan’s real mother’s tragic history, was living vicariously through her daughter. Later, as a mother of three daughters, I began to see why the mother was trying to convince her child to do something great. It was because she wanted her daughter to be no less than perfect. The story did not change my perspective on mother-daughter relationships because all mothers raising daughters have unique coming-of-age stories. I did stop and reflect upon my own mother and my childhood with her as we had our growing pains. I was adopted and my mother was very much like Amy Tans trying to make every perfect. Tan writes brilliantly with passion and I am a newly committed fan. I would not change a thing in this story.
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