Critical Analysis of Two Kinds by Amy Tan

‘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.

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