Amy Tan’s Two Kinds is a short story included in her 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. In addition to detailing a struggle of wills between a mother and daughter, it paints a portrait of the lives of Chinese immigrants in postwar America.
The protagonist and narrator, Jing Mei “June” Woo, describes her childhood under the pressures of her mother, who believes in the American dream of success and wants her to become a famous prodigy. At first she tries to turn June into a “Chinese Shirley Temple,” but with poor results. Her mother searches for different kinds of talents for June to develop until she finally hits upon the idea of playing the piano while watching the Ed Sullivan Show on TV. She hires a deaf man named Mr. Chong to give June piano lessons, but it doesn’t take long for June to discover she can get away with not playing her lessons correctly because he can’t hear the notes that she is playing. When June hears her mother bragging to her aunt Lind about June’s genius on the piano, June decides to teach her mother a lesson. She is supposed to play Schumann’s “Pleading Child” at a talent show, but in practice she never corrects her wrong notes, and the show is a disaster. She is surprised to find afterwards that her mother still expects her to go to piano practice even though she is clearly no genius. In the struggle that ensues, June tells her mother she wishes she was dead like twins she left behind in China, and as a result her mother finally gives up on her. The story ends with June as an adult after her mother’s death. She plays the piano for the first time since childhood, and notices the piece on the page opposite from “Pleading Child” is called “Perfectly Contented.” It occurs to her that “they were two halves of the same song.”
The music is from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, and it is the central symbol of the story. There are two halves of childhood, pleading and contentment. Following her own mind, June never found contentment with her mother until it was too late.