The short story Two Kinds was written by Amy Tan the daughter of Chinese immigrants who was born in Oakland and raised in California. The short story setting is in China, and the narrative is part of the novel ‘The Joy Luck Club.’ In the story, the character June comes into conflict with her mother Suyuan after the later tries to make June a child prodigy. June is forced by her mother to take up piano lessons, but she performs poorly once she is supposed to conduct a recital. Subsequently, the conflict between the two continues for a long period. According to the story, Suyuan quizzes her daughter on math and geography topics with the hope of uncovering a hidden genius in her daughter. Moreover, Suyuan arranges for her daughter to take up piano lessons after seeing a Chinese girl doing the same on a television show. The story revolves around June’s recollection after her mother had died of the sadness she had for leaving her twin babies in China back in 1949.
June also called Jing-Mei in the story, uses her mother’s feelings of regret as a weapon to fight the battle of wills between what her mother Suyuan wants her to be and what she wants to become in life. This is exemplified after the failed piano recital session when June states that she wishes she were dead as her twin siblings left behind in China by her mother. The main theme drawn from the story is the cultural division existing between an Asian immigrant and an Asian-American child. The conflict and desires of both Jing-mei and Suyuan reflect on the American dream and how people migrating to America focus more on attaining the materialistic life that is promised for all rather than self-fulfillment in life.
Suyuan sought to raise her a daughter in a manner that would secure her life based on the American dream hence she always taught her daughter ways that would ensure her success in life. This ensured that Jing-mei always focused on the material things in life rather than living a sell-fulfilling life. This is depicted in one night when Suyuan asks Jing-Mei to read the bible and restate what she had read. June recites a verse in the bible that talks about riches and honor yet the bible is more than promises for wealth and greatness. This conforms with the ideals of American society during this period after the second world war when the economic growth and rebuilding ensured that everyone focused on accumulating wealth. Sunyee & Kim (2016) asserts that the American dream focuses on the promise of economic mobility and further links materialism and consumerism or impulsive spending. While Jing-Mei’s attributes indicate that she is focused on materialistic success, it is also true that her mother is the one who inculcated these thoughts in her. Suyuan is constantly focused on making Jing-Mei a celebrity as is seen with her plans to make her daughter a piano star simply because another Chinese girl played piano in an American television show. In the eyes of Suyuan, it is imperative that economic success is attained in order for one to enjoy the American dream.
The article by Tan depicts the conflict arising between Asian culture and the American culture. Suyuan who had been raised in China had different cultural beliefs than Jing-Mei in that Suyuan was strict and believed in the idea that the parent determines the destiny of the child. The Asian culture does not allow for the children to question the actions or instructions of the parent. While in America, especially in the 1950s, children enjoyed more freedom and chose their own destiny. According to Morimoto & La Ferle (2008), cultural differences are prevalent between one generation and the other, especially if the first generation migrated to another country as is the case with Suyuan and Jing-Mei.
Moreover, the Asian American community can be viewed as a heterogeneous group and these impacts on their ethnic identification. It has become difficult to treat the community as one group since interactions with other cultures changes the individual’s perceptions of life. Suyuan treats and raises Jing-Mei the same way she was raised in China and ignores the fact that Jing-Mei associates more with the American culture rather than the Asian culture. This was prevalent in the period of 1950s and 1960s, where cultural conflicts were common between the colored and non-colored in America. It is also during this period that the hippie movement arose and this was premised on complete freedom of self in regards to decision making. Subsequently, conflict arose between the two characters of Suyuan and Jing-Mei as one has been brought up through a culture of strictness and the other believes in complete freedom in making their own choices in life. The cultural anxieties of Suyuan, an immigrant from China, are projected on the daughter as she seeks to have Jing-Mei succeed in the American culture.
More than twenty years after Jing-Mei’s mother has passed on, Jing –Mei traces back the song the song that her mother sought to teach her while playing the piano. The song has two parts, and one is ‘Pleading child’ while the other is ‘Perfectly contented.’ Jing-Mei realizes that she only got to read and play the first part. This is the author’s way of describing the behavior of children in the American society who were not always in agreement with their parent’s decisions.
The generational tension has always been evident in the American society, especially in the period of the 1950s. The difference between the two groups emanates from the upbringing, each had coupled with education, age, and aspirations of the two generations. This social aspect is exemplified in the short story through the conflict that Jing-Mei and Suyuan had over the piano lessons. Tan in her wisdom uses the names of the song to describe the type of interactions parents and their children had during this period. Through the titles ‘Pleading child’ and ‘Perfectly contented,’ the author depicts a relationship of conflict, confusion, and reflection that existed between parents and their children in the American society.
Through the aspirations of Suyuan and subsequent disappointment, the author is able to depict the competitiveness that existed between families in the American society. The author shows the different avenues of talent pursued by both Suyuan and Jing-Mei in order to establish what Jing-Mei can do with her life, but disappointment is never far. On the other hand, other characters in the story are able to succeed. For example Waverly, Lindos daughter becomes very good in playing the piano, and her mother brags about her success. Suyuan retorts that Waverly only succeeds in acts of treachery. This correlates with the feelings and aspirations of immigrant parents who are more competitive when raising their children in a new land full of resources.
Suyuan was raised in China, and during this period the country was full of misery and lack of opportunity hence when she is in America she becomes more competitive when raising her child. Li, Zhou & Hou (2015) asserts that Chinese immigrants in America have previously been faced with different challenges as they seek to become part of the society. Such problems include economic pressure, acculturation coupled with language barriers. Subsequently, parents feel the pressure to transform their children into individuals who can easily be accepted in the American society.
Moreover, these types of stressors may damage the relationship existing between the parents and children and further negatively impact on the adjustment of the children in society. In fact, the negative impact of parental pressure on their children to achieve success or become prodigies is depicted in the short story when Jing-Mei gets tired of seeing the disappointment she brings to her mother. She looks at herself in the mirror and ends up crying about her ‘sad and ugly’ expression. It is at this time that she comes to the realization that she cannot become a prodigy of her mother and therefore promises to shield herself from the change her mother wants her to adopt.
It is possible that what Suyuan desires for her daughter is what fate has for Jing-Mei, but her level of stubbornness and resistance prevents her from ever achieving this potential. In the eyes of Jing-Mei, her authentic self is exactly what fate has for her. These social aspects are evident in the current society and also in the time period in which Tan wrote the prose.
Li, X., Zhou, Q., & Hou, K. (2015). Marital Conflict of Chinese American Immigrant Couple: A Mediator of Socioeconomic Incorporation and Children’s Behavioral Problem. Journal Of Child & Family Studies, 24(12), 3816-3826. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0190-y
Morimoto, M., & La Ferle, C. (2008). Examining the Influence of Cultures on Perceived Source Credibility of Asian Americans & the Mediating Roles of Similarity. Journal Of Current Issues & Research In Advertising (CTC Press), 30(1), 49-60.
Sunyee, Y., & Kim, H. C. (2016). Keeping the American Dream Alive: The Interactive Effect of Perceived Economic Mobility and Materialism on Impulsive Spending. Journal Of Marketing Research (JMR), 53(5), 759-772. doi:10.1509/jmr.15.0053