Two Kinds

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The central struggle in Amy Tan's story "Two Kinds" is a battle of wills between the narrator, a young Chinese American girl, and her mother, a Chinese immigrant. "Two Kinds" is a coming-of-age story, in which the narrator, Jing-mei, struggles to forge her own sense of identity in the face of her strong-willed mother's dream that she become a "prodigy." Jing-mei is caught between her Chinese mother's traditional ideas about how to raise a daughter, and her own development as a Chinese American girl straddling two cultures. Like many immigrants to the United States, Jing-mei's mother has created idealized visions of her adopted country as a land of opportunity where all dreams may be realized. The first line of the story introduces this central idea: "My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America." This vision of America as a place where the streets are paved with gold is further described in the opening paragraph: You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous. The tone of this opening paragraph introduces an element of irony in the narrator's attitude toward her mother's vision of America as a place where "you could become anything you wanted to be." Everything sounds too simple and too easily achieved. Yet the narrator does not paint a picture of her mother as ignorant or silly. The story indicates that America is a symbol of hope and optimism in the life of a woman who has suffered numerous tragedies in the form of great personal and financial loss, and yet refuses to give up her dreams: America was where all my mother's hopes lay. 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. Her mother's American dreams, then, function as a symbol of hope for a brighter future for her daughter. Having absorbed idealized visions of the "American Dream" from television and other forms of mass media, Jing-mei's mother manages to fabricate a seemingly endless supply of success fantasies for her daughter. Each new inspiration about the nature of her daughter's destiny to become a "prodigy" is sparked by what she sees on television, reads in women's magazines or reads about in such mass-market publications as Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not. Her first attempt to turn Jing-mei into a "prodigy" is derived from television movies. "My mother thought I could be a Chinese Shirley Temple," explains the narrator. "We'd watch Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films." Later, her mother's determination to make her daughter a musical prodigy is inspired by a Chinese girl she sees performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Through this process, Jing-mei's mother demands that she "try on" a variety of identities: from "Chinese Shirley Temple," to child genius, to piano virtuoso. Jing-mei at first absorbs her mother's dreams in which one may simply decide to be a prodigy, and then pick and choose which type of prodigy to be as if it were as easy as trying on clothes in a store or changing the TV channel. I pictured the prodigy part of me as many different images, trying each one on for size. I was a dainty ballerina girl standing by the curtains, waiting to hear the right music that would send me floating on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity. I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon music filling the air. Yet Jing-mei soon finds that her mother's determination that she becomes a prodigy threatens to stifle her own sense of who she is. Ironically, it is out of defiance against her mother that she ultimately does forge her own sense of personal identity. Jing-mei's sense of failure to embody...
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