The Short Story “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan
In the short story Two Kinds, Amy Tan explores the complex relationship between a mother and daughter. Set in the US, the story is about a girl named Jing-Mei who struggles under the weight of her mother’s expectations for her to become a prodigy. The author’s purpose is to highlight intercultural and generational conflict between parent and child. Using dialogue and contrast, Amy Tan highlights the themes of intercultural conflict and personal identity in her short story Two Kinds.
The story follows the protagonist, Jing-Mei, a Chinese girl born in America to parents who fled from China. Her mother, Suyuan Woo, believes that anyone can be rich, famous, and respected in America provided that they work hard (Tan 304). At first, Mrs. Woo unsuccessfully tries to model her daughter into a child actor. Next, she gives the girl multiple tests to determine whether the girl is a child genius. The girl does not pass these tests, so Mrs. Woo registers her for piano lessons hoping she is musically gifted. Jing-Mei becomes frustrated with her mother’s attempts at transforming her into a perfect child and begins to resist them. When Jing-Mei tells her mother than she wished for death to save her, Mrs. Woo stops trying to make her a child prodigy. The author remarks that by defying her mother’s wishes, she became who she actually wanted to be as an adult.
The main characters in Two Kinds are Mrs. Woo and Jing-Mei. The two hold fundamentally different beliefs about life, which creates a rift between them. On one hand, Mrs. Woo trusts in the American Dream and thinks the US provides opportunities for anyone to achieve anything through persistence. She lives by the ideology that parents always know what is best for their children, and children should obey their parents unconditionally (Ewaidat 330).). Her ideas about life in America lead her to push her daughter towards activities such as playing the piano. On the other hand, Jing-Mei only wants the freedom to be herself and rebels against her mother’s wishes. She thinks that people should only be who they are and not anything they could be. She also believes everyone should be given independence to discover themselves. The characters are ever in conflict because of their different perspectives on life.
Two Kinds explores the themes of generational and intercultural conflict and personal freedom. Although they share a culture, the fact they grew up in different places overshadows their shared culture. For instance, in response to her mother’s instruction for her to play the piano, Jing-Mei thinks to herself that America was not China, implying that America provided her with more freedom than China would (Tan 310). In addition to conflict, the book explores personal freedom and independence. At first, the young girl does everything her mothers wants hoping that this will make her parents adore her (Tan 305). However, after performing poorly at the talent show, she realized that she would not be happy if she kept following her mother’s commands (Ewaidat 327). Later in life, the protagonist carved her path even when it meant disappointing her mother. For example, she did not always get the highest grades nor did she get into Stanford (Tan 311). Overall, Jing-Mei rebelled against Mrs. Woo’s expectations to establish her own identity.
To show how intergenerational conflict shapes familial relationships, Amy Tan uses dialogue. The conversations between Mrs. Woo and Jing-Mei shows how different these characters are. While Mrs. Woo speaks in broken English, Jing-Mei is a fluent English speaker. The author uses command of language as an indicator of the divide that exists between one person who grew up in China and another who was raised in America. Dialogue also communicates the characters’ feelings about certain issues. Unlike narration, dialogue helps to clarify the intensity of emotions. For instance, Jing-Mei says, “I wish I were dead! Like them!”, referring to the twin daughter that Mrs. Woo was forced to leave in China (Tan 311). This must have been painful words for Mrs. Woo to hear. In the book, dialogue augments the prose and makes the story more compelling.
Aside from dialogue, Amy Tan relies on contrast to bring the story to life. The characters of Mrs. Woo and her daughter contrast greatly, and they seem to lie on opposite ends. The title of the short story is another example of the use of contrast. The title alludes to the two kinds of daughters that exist according to Mrs. Woo: obedient ones and those who follow their own mind (Tan 310). The author also contrasts the protagonist with a girl named Waverly. The former hated playing the piano, so she put no effort into practicing, while the latter was a chess champion because of her zeal for the game. At the end of the book, the author contrasts the recital piece “Pleading Child” with “Perfectly Contented” (Tan 312). Jing-Mei later realizes that these two recitals are two halves of the same song. The song alludes to the fact that the protagonist was once a child who disobeyed her mother and she is now an adult who is happy with her decisions. The author’s use of contrast helps to advance the story.
In summary, Jing-Mei and her mother have a difficult relationship because she refuses to listen to her mother. The story succinctly covers the internal struggle faced by many people whose parents are immigrants. These children know that their parents want only the best for them. They are often forced to find a balance between obeying their parents and establishing their personal identities. Eventually, the protagonist realized that sometimes, contentment meant deviating from a parent’s expectations.
Ewaidat, Hala. “Reconstructing the Mother-Daughter Relationship: Lydia Davis and Amy Tan.” AWEJ for Translation & Literary Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2021, pp. 324-335,
Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader¸ edited by Schilb John and John Clifford, Macmillan Higher Education, 2019, pp. 304-312.