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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Part 2, Chapter 4 : Two Kinds (Jing-mei Woo) | Summary



Jing-mei Woo's mother, Suyuan, insists she can be a child prodigy just like Waverly Jong, who is a national chess champion. The hard part is finding the right activity, as Jing-mei doesn't have any natural talents. At first she is disappointed with herself, then angry at her mother for wanting her to be something she's not. Her anger makes her feel powerful, and she vows not to let her mother change her. Then Suyuan spots a nine-year-old Chinese girl playing the piano on The Ed Sullivan Show. A few days later she barters cleaning services for piano lessons from the retired piano teacher downstairs. Jing-mei throws a fit, yelling, "Why don't you like me the way I am? I'm not a genius!" Suyuan slaps her and says, "Only ask you be your best. For you sake."

The piano lessons are a disaster. Her teacher, Old Chong, is deaf. He has no idea she's not playing the correct notes or even attempting to do so. As an adult Jing-mei reflects she probably could have been good at the piano, but she "was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different" that she is terrible. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her daughter's mediocrity and brags to Lindo Jong about how much "natural talent" Jing-mei has. The truth comes out at the church talent show, and the Joy Luck Club and their families witness Jing-mei's disaster of a performance. They are stunned, as is Jing-mei, who momentarily believed she was actually a prodigy. After the show Waverly says, "You aren't a genius like me." Suyuan says nothing.

Two days later Suyuan tells Jing-mei it's time to practice. Jing-mei refuses. Their heated fight ends when Jing-mei says she wishes she were dead like Suyuan's other daughters back in China. Defeated, Suyuan never mentions the incident, and though Suyuan insists the piano belongs to Jing-mei, Jing-mei doesn't touch it again until after her mother's death, when she has it tuned and sits down to play the piece from the recital. It is a slow, sad song called "Pleading Child." On the next page is a longer, more up-tempo piece, "Perfectly Contented." She realizes they are "two halves of the same song."


Jing-mei and Suyuan's story is not much different from those of the other mothers and daughters in the book. Suyuan wants her daughter to do her best, but Jing-mei misunderstands her mother's intentions and assumes her mother wants her to be the best. Jing-mei doesn't want to be the best at anything—she just wants to be herself.

Part of this disconnect between mother and daughter has to do with their differing cultural identities. Born and raised in China, Suyuan believes in Chinese way of thinking that children should perform to the best of their abilities. They are not expected to be perfect, but they are expected to aim high. Jing-mei, who was born to Chinese parents in America, identifies as an American. By and large Americans are more lenient when it comes to expectations for their children, who are encouraged to forge their own paths and do what makes them happy. This culture clash is ultimately what causes the greatest problems between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club. The mothers and daughters don't understand each other's cultural perspective.

All the mothers in The Joy Luck Club have made sacrifices for their daughters. In the case of Jing-mei's piano lessons, Suyuan's sacrifices are financial. She gives her time to clean Old Chong's house in exchange for piano lessons for her daughter, then scrounges together enough money to purchase a used piano so Jing-mei can practice. Neither she nor her husband plays the piano. They do all this entirely for Jing-mei, who doesn't appreciate this sacrifice until she is an adult. Instead of being grateful, as would be befitting a "typical" Chinese child, Jing-mei resents her mother's sacrifice. To her it means Suyuan wants her to be something she is not. "I won't let her change me," Jing-mei promises herself.

Jing-mei's stubbornness leads to multiple instances of failing to meet expectations. She "didn't get straight As ... didn't become class president ... didn't get into Stanford." She ultimately drops out of college and bounces from job to job. The problem is not Suyuan's expectations but rather Jing-mei's belief that she isn't capable of success. She views herself the way she thinks her mother sees her, as a failure, especially when compared to chess champion Waverly. Even the phantom images of the lost twin sisters loom large in Jing-mei's mind, and she often wonders if her mother would rather be raising them instead of her. Surely they would be the "obedient daughter[s]" Suyuan desired. Jing-mei is unable to see just how much her mother loves her because she is constantly worried she will never be good enough for her. It is only after Suyuan's death that Jing-mei realizes her mother always knew Jing-mei was more capable than she let on.

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