The Mother-daughter Conflict In Amy Tan’s Two Kinds

In “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan the readers meet Jing-Mei Woo and her mother, Suyuan. Suyuan, who immigrated to America from China, has decided that her daughter will be the fulfillment of the American Dream, and will be a prodigy. Suyuan decides that Jing-Mei will become a pianist, and schedules piano lessons for her with a neighbor. Jing-Mei has grown more and more resentful of her mother who she feels is trying to make her into something she is not, and therefore does not apply herself to practicing the piano. After an embarrassing performance at a talent show, Jing-Mei prepares herself for her mother to be extremely critical, and when she is not, Jing-Mei provokes her until she retreats. It is only after her mother’s death that Jing-Mei realizes what her mother truly wanted for her, and accepts that she had rejected her mother’s dreams in the process of trying to find herself, but in doing so had also rejected her heritage and her true identity. The conflicts between a mother and daughter are at their core, the struggle of a daughter to find her autonomous identity against the backdrop of her mother’s world and her mother’s dreams for her future. Only by resolving these conflicts can one be successful in establishing one’s true identity.

Amy Tan, the author of this short story, was greatly inspired by happenings in her own life. Amy Tan spent her youth trying to deny her Chinese heritage, and was more interested in fitting in with her American friends. “I remember trying to belong and feeling isolated. I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way.” She was embarrassed by her mother’s broken English and her family’s Chinese customs. She has stated that she didn’t truly appreciate her heritage until she was 35. She chose writing as the method to work through and understand the mother-daughter tensions she had experienced. “When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself. I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country (America).” 

One of Amy’s early rebellions was that her mother would speak to her in Chinese and she would respond in English, trying to prove her distance from her parents and their world. Her parents set high goals for her, just as the mother does in “Two Kinds”. They bought a piano, a very big expense, so she could start lessons at five. As she grew up, she moved away from her parents’ dreams for her, and in fact, her mother didn’t speak to her for six months when she chose English as her college major. In fact, this quote from “Two Kinds”; “It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations,” could have been said by Amy and not by the character in the story. Amy wrote her first novel, where this short story is taken from, imagining that she was writing to her mother, and she has said that writing it helped her resolve many of the mother-daughter conflicts from her childhood. 

The protagonist of “Two Kinds,” Jing-Mei, is a developing character. As a child she rejects her mother, the antagonist, and her mother’s attempts to push her to develop herself. “I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not.” Once she matures she realizes how misguided that was. Jing-Mei had decided that her mother did not respect her choices, but she discovered her mother’s true intentions later on. Suyuan had lost two daughters in China during the war and she had been trying to give Jing-Mei the best in their honor, giving her what she could not give them. Jing-Mei’s realization comes when she sees that the second half of the piece she had played in the infamous talent show, “Pleading Child,” is called “Perfectly Contented”. She sees that these are two sides of the same coin, and comes to terms with her mother and her mother’s dreams for her, and the tensions they experienced. “After I played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.” 

A woman cannot be perfectly contented in life until she reconciles the relationship with her mother and comes to terms with the conflict, which is the realization that Jing-Mei has. Suyuan and Jing-Mei’s tensions were indicative of Jing-Mei’s struggles to find herself as her mother’s daughter, but also as the child of immigrants. In fact, the struggle between mother and daughter is really a struggle between a girl or woman and herself, growing up and trying to find her place in the world, and her place in her mother’s shadow. “For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.” 

This struggle is magnified when the mother also represents “the Old Country,” and the daughter is attempting to assimilate into the new world that she is being brought up in. The rejection of the old ways and old customs, become a rejection of the mother who embodies these ways. “I didn’t have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t China.” 

But ultimately, it is understanding the mother and repairing the relationship with her that helps the daughter find the true meaning of life and establish her own identity. Only when she came to terms with her heritage and where she came from could Jing-Mei move forward in life with purpose and intention. The burden of fulfilling the American expectations of success while being true to her Chinese ancestry had been a heavy burden for a child to bear. “A few years ago, she offered to give me the piano…I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed.” 

“Only two kinds of daughters,' she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!’” Suyuan shouted this at Jing-Mei after the failed performance. In her mind, obedient daughters are ones who follow the path their Chinese mother has laid out for them, and those who follow their own mind and blaze their own paths are ‘disobedient.’ But are those disobedient children not the ones who are fulfilling the true American Dream that their parents want for them? America was founded on revolution, rebelling against the Mother Country of England, so in a way the true way of assimilating into American culture is by rejecting where you came from. Immigrants to America must realize that in pushing their children to fulfill the American Dream, they are pushing their children away. But if they are to be truly successful, children of immigrants must find a middle ground to honor their heritage while honoring the values of their new country. “If you are unable to integrate your past, you will never have a successful future.” 

Works Cited

  • Admin, JL. “Two Kinds by Amy Tan: Analysis & Themes.” Jotted Lines, May 22, 2019, pp.1-2
  • Kramer, Barbara. Amy Tan. Author of the Joy Luck Club. Enslow Publishers, 1996
  • Lew, Julie. “How Stories Written for Mother Became Amy Tan’s Best Seller.” The New York Times, July 4, 1989, pp. 23, seller.html
  • Mathews, Sushil Mary. “Breaking the Good Mother Myths — A Study of the Novels of Amy Tan.” Language in India, vol. 10, no. 7, July 2010, pp. 221-234. EBSCOhost,=ip,shib&db=ufh&AN-52792681&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  • Merina, Anita. “Joy, Luck, and Literature.” NEA Today, October 1991, pp. 9
  • Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” Literature, An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar Roberts and Robert Zweig. Pearson, 2018. Print. pp. 222-229.
  • Wood, Michelle Gafner. “Negotiating the Geography of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Amy Tan’s ‘The Joy Luck Club.’” Midwest Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 1, Sept. 2012, pp. 82-96
16 August 2021
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