The Symbolism and Narration of Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”

Amy Tan demonstrates a child’s struggle for identity in her story “Two Kinds”. This essay analyses the writing techniques Tan uses in order to express the struggle between parent and child; in which the child is struggling to have her own identity. Typical in Asian cultures, Tan describes the parents’ desire for a child prodigy through strict discipline and expected child obedience.

Living in America exposes Jing-mei to American influence. Jing-mei’s mother however spent the majority of her life in China, and expects her child to behave as she would had she been raised in China. This essay depicts American cultural influence as one way to explain Jing-mei and her mother’s contrasting views; the main idea of this essay however is to demonstrate Tan’s use of symbolism and narration to depict the traditional struggle between parent and child.

Amy Tan uses the main character, Jing-mei to represent the typical American pre-teen who is determined to break free from her mother’s uncontrollable need to make her a prodigy. Jing-mei is a rounded main character which the reader is able to watch grow emotionally throughout the story; her need to be herself and defend her position is an important theme throughout “Two Kinds”. Tan uses the first person narration to draw the reader in personally to JIng-mei and what she is experiencing. The reader can hear Jing-mei’s thoughts and disappointments.

The minor character, Jing-mei’s mother, is a flat character in comparison to her daughter. The reader is unable to really know what the mother is thinking because of Tan’s use of second person narration. To help the reader understand the mother’s actions, Tan describes the mother’s history briefly discussed within the first page of the story. Using an important writing technique, Tan gives the reader a look into the mother’s painful history; enough for the reader to understand the mother’s motives as they watch her drill her daughter on popular American trivia facts and not stopping even after Jeing-mei protests.

The opening line of “Two Kinds” is especially important to understanding the mother’s motives. Jing-mei, the narrator tells the audience, “my mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America” (468). This sentence describes the hopes and dreams of Jing-mei’s mother. Tan goes on to explain the mother’s perception of America; she believes America is the answer to all their problems.

The readers are not told what happened to her remaining family in China, but it resulted in death and that is enough for the reader to sympathize with the mother and her controlling behavior. The narrator, JIng-mei, gives the audience an understanding of the mother’s motives; this understanding is important in order for Tan to communicate her message of a daughter-mother relationship.

The reader has the advantage of knowing the mother’s reasoning for pushing Jing-mei to be the best; Jing-mei however, does not. By using first person narration, the reader experiences Jing-mei’s frustration at being made to perform against her will. In the beginning of “Two Kinds” however, Jing-mei is excited at the prospect of being famous. Jing-mei thinks, “in all of my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon be perfect;” the reader almost feels sorry for the little girl; for many adults can sympathize.

Many people can remember a time of innocence when they thought they could do anything, that they could be the perfect child their parents imagined them to be. This need to fill a parent’s high expectations is cause for harsh disappointment as Jing-mei discovers. After witnessing her mother’s disappointment; anger begins to burn inside Jing-mei at having to perform ridiculous tests. This rage turns to an inner protest; Tan portrays this rebellion as Jing-mei’s disinterest in test questions.

Even after her mother goes through trouble of trading house cleaning for piano lessons, Jing-mei puts in minimal effort. This child rebellion is common in American children; rather than risking being a disappointment, Jing-mei protects her feelings by acting as if she doesn’t care. Tan writes of Jing-mei’s private protest, “so now on nights when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was” (470). Jing-mei became her own prodigy.

The story’s title, “Two Kinds”, is a description of the theme of the story. The title of Tan’s story is a symbol of the two generations and two cultures depicted in “Two Kinds”. The mother is from China, with Chinese traditions and Jing-mei was raised in America, influenced by America’s culture; where children had more say and questioned their parents’ judgments as Jing-mei finally did when she accused her mother of wanting her to be a genius. There is a distinct gap between mother and daughter as seen in both generational and cultural differences.

The most important use of symbolism in “Two Kinds” is the piano. The piano becomes the link between Jing-mei and her mother; although this is not clear to Jing-mei during childhood. Jing-mei is angered by being forced to play the piano and purposely doesn’t take it serious; much like the way Jing-mei does not take her mothers dreams for a prodigy serious.

Underlying the rebellion Jing-mei demonstrates during her piano lessons; she finds the chance to play in a talent show exiting; her excitement reveals that small part of her that still wants to please her mother and be the little prodigy her mother hopes for. Jing-mei describes her childish excitement to make her mother proud, she says, “When my turn came, I was very confident. I remember my childish excitement. It was as if I knew, without a doubt, that the prodigy side of me really did exist” (474). Tan accurately portrays a child’s inner desire to please her parent, as she writes of Jing-mei’s sudden excitement. All Jing-mei’s protests were forgotten and she had a chance to make her mom proud.

Tan’s narrative style allows the reader to see the full extent of Jing-mei’s emotional growth. The narrator is Jing-mei as an adult, looking back at this specific time of her childhood in refection. It isn’t until she is an adult that she can appreciate what her mother was trying to accomplish during her childhood. The narrator realized that everything changed after the disastrous recital. Her mother’s dreams seemed to fade after JIng-mei demonstrated what she had learned throughout her lessons.

Tan showed a mother’s unconditional love for her child by the mother insisting that Jing-mei continue her lessons even after the recital fiasco. While it may seem that the mother was extremely controlling, making the child continue with lessons she did not want; the reader can interpret this as a mother who does not give up on her child; a mother who is determined to show her child that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to.

The piano remains a symbol for the relationship between Jing-mei and her mother. After things escalate and Jing-mei speaks out against her mother, wishing she weren’t her daughter, the piano remains unused. Tan uses this opportunity to fast forward to all the future disappointments she causes her mother.  The piano continues to be a link between mother and daughter when the mother asks Jing-mei to take it on her thirtieth birthday; and encourages her to try it again by complimenting on her quick learning ability. This opened the door to a new understanding in their relationship. All of a sudden the piano became a symbol of Jing-mei’s acceptance by her mother and herself.

Jing-mei as an adult appreciates what her mother had done for her as a child. The fondness she suddenly has for the piano that brought her such frustration and embarrassment symbolizes the acceptance of herself and of the truth behind her mother’s pushy but well meaning behavior. The piano symbolizes the mother-daughter bond which is tested during childhood but strengthens in time with understanding.

In conclusion, Tan uses first person narration to give the reader a more intimate experience with the characters. The symbolism used in “Two Kinds” portrays the classic struggle between mother and daughter; a daughter seeking her own identity and a mother wanting the best for her daughter. “Two Kinds” addresses the pain that family can bring upon one another but also the forgiveness and understanding that can be reached between loved ones.