Two Kinds is a selection from Amy Tan’s (1952– ) critically acclaimed The Joy Luck Club (1989), which critics saw as an intricately woven “novel.” But that Tan intended the book to be read not as a novel but as a collection of short stories is evident. “Two Kinds” stands on its own as a story that explores the struggles between a Chinese immigrant mother, Suyuan Woo, and her firstgeneration American daughter, Jing-mei (the narrator of the story). Suyuan Woo dreams of her daughter’s becoming a child prodigy, but Jing-mei resists these ambitions and attempts to express her own free will. The story expresses the themes that run throughout The Joy Luck Club: “the struggle for control between mothers and daughters; the daughters’ bids for independent lives; the mothers’ attempts to understand the dynamics of life in the New World and somehow to blend the best of their Old World culture with a new way of life that they do not comprehend” (Huntley 43). These themes appear in the first two paragraphs, where Jing-mei begins with her mother’s, not her own, perspective: “My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America” (585). At the core of the struggle between mother and daughter is the conflict between Suyuan Woo’s belief in America as the land of unlimited potential and Jing-mei’s more realistic expectations. However, Tan does more than merely present an unrealistic optimist in Suyuan Woo; with an allusion to Suyuan Woo’s past, Tan suggests why immigrants perceive America differently than their Americanized progeny: “She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better” (585). The date of her arrival in America coincides with the end of the Sino-Japanese War and hints at the tragedies that befell her in her war-ravaged home country. Instead of dwelling on these tragedies, she invests all hope in the future, specifically in her daughter.
In the third paragraph, the story shifts focus from Suyuan Woo’s perspective to young Jing-mei’s impressions of her mother. For instance, Jing-mei notes that her mother’s search for the type of prodigy she might become was implemented through reading magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest, and she explains, “My mother got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned. And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment” (586). Jing-mei offers no comment on, seems to have no empathy for, the hard work her mother does in order to achieve a better life for her family. Furthermore, she does not seem to appreciate the sacrifice involved in the deal Suyuan Woo makes with a neighbor, “Old Chong,” in order to get her piano lessons: “My mother had traded housecleaning services for weekly lessons and a piano for me to practice on every day, two hours a day, from four until six.” When learning about the deal for piano lessons, she focuses on her own obligations and concludes, “I felt as though I had been sent to hell” (588). Jing-meidoes not seem to recognize the IRONY of this comment. Despite her mother’s losses and sufferings in China and her sacrifices in America, Jing-mei sees only her own loss of free time in this piano deal. In this way, the story emphasizes differences between immigrant parents and their Americanized children. The children are largely unaware of the hardships the parents endure to get a piece of the American Dream in which they have so much faith.
However, there is more to Jing-mei’s resistance to and resentment of her mother’s ambitions than a mere desire to spend her free time watching television; it is not that she is just “lazy,” as her mother sometimes accuses her. Her resistance is a sign that instead of seeing America as the land of opportunity, Jing-mei sees it as the land of freedom, freedom of choice and of will. At first Jing-mei goes along with her mother’s crazy schemes to get rich quick, but she eventually perceives the unreality of these dreams and, instead, sees her ability to assert her free will. After yet another failure with her mother, Jing-mei looks at herself in the mirror and sees “only my face,” an “ordinary face.” With this she begins to cry, seeing herself as a “sad” and “ugly” girl. It is at this moment that she realizes a different kind of potential than the potential her mother sees: “Then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me—because I had never seen that face before. . . .The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not” (587). Her prodigy self is the self who is able to resist authority, to choose her own course of life, a distinctly American ambition.
While mother and daughter each cling to American values, the values they cling to are opposing. When Jing-mei tries to assert her free will by refusing to play the piano, Suyuan Woo tells her that there are only “two kinds of daughters. . . . Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind!” Her mother further tells her that “only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter” (592). While the mother urgently desires an Americanized daughter, one who achieves great things, one with the potential to become rich and famous, she cannot come to terms with other American characteristics, those of self-determination and independence. Despite its emphasis on the immigrant experience, as E. D. Huntley points out, Tan’s fiction has a more universal theme: “Tan also writes about love and loss and redemption, about individuals coming to terms with the facts of their lives and about the workings of fate in human existence” (34).
Adams, Bella. Amy Tan: Contemporary World Writers. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Huntley, E. D. Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Amy Tan: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.
Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” In The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. New York: Scribner, 1999.