‘Two Kinds’ is the last story in the second segment of Amy Tan’s highly popular debut book, The Joy Luck Club. The book is divided into four interconnected segments with each of them containing a group of stories which can stand alone themselves. While the author had intended the book to be a short-story collection, it is seen by critics as a novel due to the interrelated and cohesive narrative. Similar to other stories in the collection, ‘Two Kinds’ is a depiction of complexities in mother-daughter relationships in San Francisco’s China-town. The focus of the story is the often disruptive but inevitable “distance between mothers who were born in China before the communist revolution and thus have been cut off from their native culture for decades, and their American-born daughters who must negotiate the twin burdens of their Chinese ancestry and American expectations for success”. While the protagonist and narrator of the story Jing-mei persistently thwarts her mother’s aspirations to make her a musical prodigy, it was only decades later in life that she gains insight into her mother’s underlying motives. This essay will strive to support the view that ‘Two Kinds’ is a powerful expose on the problems of identity and community in twentieth century America. Author Amy Tan explores this sensitive and highly relevant aspect of this multicultural nation by employing sophisticated literary tools without compromising on the readability.
At the root of the story is the interpersonal dissonance that the phenomenon of mass immigration creates. In Two Kinds, Amy Tan builds up the romantic concept of cultural origins and lost ethnic essence in order to radically undermine and reconfigure the notion of an ethnic essence. The mother-daughter relationship is symbolized by the analogy of native-foreigner. For instance, “the narrative of separation and return— symbolized by Jing-Mei Woo’s return to China/mother—on the plot level is questioned by the rhetorical structure of the text which undercuts any notions of simple identification of origins or of a cultural “reality” easily available for access” (Bloom, 2001).
Jing-mei’s narrative keeps alive a memory of the past and creates a community. Two Kinds adds its own version of femininity and ethnicity to the wider narrative. Moreover, in Two Kinds, two different aspects of immigrant life is presented. First, the emphasis is on the loss of separation from mothers, and later the emphasis shifts to the ensuing competitiveness of the relationship. In the words of Amy Tan scholar Harold Bloom,
“we have Jing-Mei Woo, the Chinese-American daughter who wishes to understand and unite with the memories of her dead mother. On the other hand, we have immigrant Chinese mothers who project their cultural anxieties on their daughters. Waverly Jong’s mother, for instance, parades her daughter’s chess trophies and lectures to her about winning tournaments while Suyan Woo tries unsuccessfully to create a musical child prodigy out of her unmusical daughter Jing-Mei Woo”. (Bloom, 2001)
The apparent folly of Mrs. Woo’s aspirations for her daughter can be learnt from her dogmatic belief that America is the Land of Opportunity. She places unreasonable expectations on the shoulders of her young, tender daughter. While she may not exactly know where her daughter’s prodigal talents lie, she is nevertheless adamant that her daughter is destined for greatness, by virtue of having been born in America. First, Mrs. Woo tries to model her daughter into a famous actress, but that fails abjectly. Then she puts Jing-mei through general knowledge tests. Young Jing-mei doesn’t show promise in this area, either. Finally, her mother hits upon the answer: Jing-mei will be a piano virtuoso. This time too, the decision been arrived without rationale and conviction. (Huntley, 1998)
Tan juxtaposes the instances giving rise to generational tensions alongside a broader theme of American Dream. For example, Waverly Jong feels that her mother leeches off her chess achievements with an appropriating pride, while Jing -mei feels her mother, compelled by a competition with Waverly’s mother as well as the misplaced assumption that in America one could achieve anything, pushes her beyond her abilities, at least beyond her wishes. The familiar cry “You want me to be someone that I’m not!” accelerates to “I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother.” and finally to “I wish I’d never been born! . . . I wish I were dead! Like them.” The “them” are the other daughters her mother had been forced to abandon in China. This story of Jing-mei moves toward the kind of muted conclusion typical of most of the daughter stories: “unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me.” There is the sense that this “me” lacks some vital centering, the cultural force that would provide its chi.
Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” and “Best Quality” depict a struggling and often stressful relationship between a defiant daughter and an overbearing mother. June Mei and her mother Suyuan engage in a destructive battle between what is possible and what is realistic. June, although headstrong, seeks her mother’s approval and adoration. Suyuan, although patronizing, yearns for her daughter’s obedience and best qualities. The relationship between mother and daughter falls victim to tension inherent in any mother/daughter struggle, especially between first-generation American daughters and their immigrant mothers (Yglesias 1). Their inability to understand one another largely stems from cultural differences; Suyuan is a Chinese woman who flees to America for a better life, while June is destined to demonstrate her self-worth as a Chinese-American. Due to distressed communicational nets, June and Suyuan maintain a staggering relationship, which ultimately ends in Suyuan’s poignant acceptance of her daughter’s individuality and cultural evolution.
One of the most prominent cultural barriers June and Suyuan suffer from is communication. Suyuan remains a cultural alien in America because she is a first generation immigrant from mainland China (Xu 3). As a result, Suyuan speaks Chinese and broken English, while June speaks English and fractured Chinese. Furthermore, the communication barrier seems to be two-fold: between generations and cultures (Shear 194). The first generational and cultural gap materializes in “Two Kinds” when June announces her adolescent defiance by saying, “Why don’t you like me the way I am? I’m not a genius!” Her overbearing mother retorts in her fragile English, “Who ask you be genius? Only ask you be your best. For you sake …” (Tan 597). This short dialogue is extremely significant as it reveals the cultural tension between Suyuan and June, thus causing a bitter mother/daughter conflict. June’s difficulty in comprehending her mother echoes Suyuan’s frustration at her inability to pass on the benefits of her accumulated wisdom and experience (Rubin 13). Suyuan’s frail English, concurrent with June’s adolescent will to defy her mother, illustrate the communication and culture nets they must overcome.
Another example of their shared dilemma begins with June’s timid reaction to her mother’s offering of her life’s importance twenty years later in “Best Quality.” Suyuan offers June her “life’s importance,” a jade pendant on a gold chain (Tan 221). Cultural and generational gaps illuminate the root of June’s uncertainty about this jade pendant Suyuan gives her after a Chinese New Year crab dinner. June reveals her bewilderment when she notices a bartender wearing a similar pendant. After asking him of its origin, he replies with, “My mother gave it to me after I got divorced … I think she’s trying to tell me I’m still worth something.” June reflects, “I knew by the wonder in his voice that he had no idea what the pendant really meant” (222). This dialogue suggests there is a deeper, sadder miscommunication between June and her deceased mother.
As June ascertains the meaning of Suyuan’s poignant offering by asking her aunties, her mother’s closest friends, she realizes “they would tell me a meaning that is different from what my mother intended” (222). Conversations with her “aunties” remind June of painful distances: “My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (Cheng 12). Her revelation is frightening, as she feels her mother’s words will be lost in a sea of translations and interpretations. This realization, although exacerbating her quest to gather her life’s importance, simultaneously opens her mind to the “Chinese” culture, thus slowly closing the cultural and generational gap felt between mother and daughter.
Before reaching a blissful state of certainty, the pleasure of a life-altering epiphany, June engaged in destructive fights with her mother, ending in her embarrassment and Suyuan’s loss of hope. In “Two Kinds,” the conflict between Suyuan and June culminates after June’s piano fiasco when she decides she will no longer play. After Suyuan’s insistent struggle to get June to play the piano, the ultimate communicational barrier is stressed. June shouts through belligerent sobs at her mother, “You want me to be something that I’m not! I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!” Suyuan shouts back in Chinese bellowing, “Only two kinds of daughters … obedient or follow own mind! …
Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient kind!” (Tan 153). These “two kinds” of daughters suggest Suyuan’s cultural expectations and customs which contributes to the cultural net; her shouts in Chinese cause the communicational net, ending with the mother and daughter struggle. June responds with a devastating proclamation, leaving her mother, like her hopes, “blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.”
As a result of June’s iron-will to assert her individuality, she fails her mother many times in the following years, including at a crab dinner twenty years later in “Best Quality.” At the beginning of the meal, everyone selects a crab until the last two are left for Suyuan and June. June, thinking it is the best and right thing to do, opts for the worst crab. However, Suyuan insists she take the better of the two crabs: “I knew I could not refuse … that’s the way Chinese mothers show they love their children, not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of [food],” June recalls (232). This poignant moment is halted as the generational and cultural conflict between Suyuan and June intensifies during the crab dinner. During the meal, Waverly and June begin to bicker.
However, Waverly gets the best of June, embarrassing her in front of her friends and family. Even worse, June remembers her mother telling Waverly, “True, cannot teach style. June not sophisticate like you. Must be born this way.” June laments not only is she humiliated, but “betrayed” by her mother (Tan 232). This bitter and oppressive remark strengthens the mother/daughter conflict. There are moments of redemption in both stories, however. In “Two Kinds,” Suyuan offers the piano June played when she was a child, while in “Best Quality,” she gives June a jade pendant with a poignant message about her life’s importance. After these offerings many years later, Suyuan and June finally come to an understanding.
For June’s thirtieth birthday, Suyuan decides to give her the piano she played as a child in “Two Kinds.” After their climactic argument at the piano bench, Suyuan never mentions June’s piano lessons again. This lack of communication seals the distance between mother and daughter. Once Suyuan closed the lid to the piano, June reflects the lid not only “shut out the dust and misery” but her “mother’s dreams” as well. Many years later, the birthday offer surprises June, feeling the offer was a “sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed” (Tan 154). Suyuan’s generous gift opens an
understanding between herself and her daughter. June takes this offer as a sign of not only forgiveness, but hope for a better relationship with her mother. Hope rekindles as June recalls, “after that, every time I saw the piano in my parent’s living room … it made me feel proud, as if it were a shiny trophy I had won” (Tan 602).
Similarly, “Best Quality” suggests reconciliation and an opening to June’s general sense of self. For example, upon giving June the jade pendant, Suyuan launches into a heartfelt message, “For a long time, I wanted to give you this necklace. See, I wore this on my skin, so when you put it on your skin, then you know my meaning. This is your life’s importance.” In this instance, June begins to understand herself, even if she does not fully understand her mother’s words. She implies her understanding by reflecting, “Although I didn’t want to accept it, I felt as if I already swallowed it” (235). The mother/daughter relationship mends further when June asks her mother, “what if someone else had picked that crab?”
Her mother smiles and responds with “Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already know this. Everybody else want best quality. But you? You thinking different. Waverly took best quality crab, you took worst. Because you have best quality heart. You have style no one can teach, must be born this way” (Tan 234). This powerful, poignant message from mother to daughter mends the generational and cultural gaps poisoning the relationship. Thus, in “Two Kinds” and “Best Quality” there is a healing process with understanding but not before a cultural conflict can plague the relationship. Finally, the communicational and cultural barrier between mother and daughter almost breaks, broadening June’s understanding of her life’s importance and Suyuan’s hopes.
The communicational barrier shatters completely when June reaches an epiphany in “Two Kinds.” As June begins to see Suyuan in a new light after the subtle offering of the piano as a sign of closure, she is revitalized and mature. After tuning the piano, June begins to play “Perfectly Contented,” the melody she butchered so many years ago during the talent show fiasco. She then notices “Pleading Child” next to it. As June recalls, “”Pleading Child” was shorter but slower; “Perfectly Contented” was longer but faster” (Tan 155). Finally realizing they are two halves of the same song, June becomes wiser. The two halves of the song serve as a metaphor about life to highlight the relationship between mother and daughter (Shen 244). The mother/daughter relationship involves two kinds of phases: a phase of barriers and a phase of maturity, understanding and redemption, the key ingredients to destroying cultural and communicational obstacles. June’s epiphany shatters the communicational barrier, as she finally understands full-heartedly she is in another phase of her life, where the good intentions and hopes her mother have for her are genuine and true.
A similar theme is portrayed in “Best Quality”, where June’s sense of self is truly realized. After her mother dies, she notices her father does not eat well. Without realizing it, she is already making the same dishes her mother used to make for her father. As she cooks the dish, she remembers her mother mentioning how hot things restore the spirit and health (Tan 235). June begins to realize her cooking is not only restoring her father’s spirit and health, but the spirit and health of her Chinese identity. In essence, she is slowly becoming like her mother, the same woman she resisted for many years.
This duality is further accentuated when she hears the tenants upstairs. “Even you don’t want them, you stuck”, her mother says. June finally understands her mother’s meaning (Tan 236). Again, not only can she finally understand her mother, she begins to become her mother, feeling the regret of having noisy tenants. Finally, she fully becomes aware of her Chinese identity when she mimics her mother’s discontent for the tomcat on her windowsill: “”Get away from there!” I shout, and slap my hand on the window three times. But the cat just narrows his eyes, flattens his one ear, and hisses back at me” (236). This illustrates June’s moment of awakening. She is truly like her mother as she remembers Suyuan’s complaints, the same three slaps of the hand and finally, the same hissing as a retort. June recognizes her mother’s traits and how they shape her, thus completely shattering the cummunicational and cultural barriers between them.
As a result of communicational and cultural barriers, June and Suyuan endure a stressful relationship. Although the conflicts between June and Suyuan are bitter and cold, there is a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation. “Two Kinds” implies without a struggle for identity and understanding, one cannot live the two halves of human experience. Illuminated by her mother’s words, June begins to understand her life’s importance and herself as a Chinese-American.
“Best Quality” depicts that understanding and how parental guidance combined with cultural experience can create character and, above all else, identity. Life exists in antitheses and paradoxes. Joy and sorrow, love and hate, pleasure and pain, success and failure, guild and redemption are all inextricably intertwinced as part of the human experience, each making the alternative possible. Tan’s “Two Kinds” and “Best Quality” reveals the human experience through a mother and daughter conflict going through two kinds of phases, a communicational and cultural barrier creating the conflict and the best qualities of one’s identity healing a broken relationship.