"Two Kinds": The Prodigy
by Jerry Price
Amy Tan's short story, "Two Kinds" begins with a brief introduction to one mother's interpretation of the American dream. The Chinese mother who lost her family in her native homeland now hopes to recapture part of her loss through her daughter. Those of us who are parents want what is best for our children. We strive to make our children's futures better. In some cases, when our own dreams have either been destroyed or not realized, we project our dreams and wishes on our children. In "Two Kinds", Amy Tan tells of such a story through the eyes of a young girl who initially mimics her mother's dreams but ultimately rebels against them. Tan's use of a common theme that most parents can relate to expresses the frustrations that parents and children feel when obsession takes the place of nurturing.
In the beginning the young girl, Ni Kan is "just as excited" as her mother about the idea of becoming a prodigy (528). She imagines herself in different roles and believes that once she has achieved her status as a prodigy, her mother and father will adore her and she will "become perfect" (528). Ni Kan may feel that she will not be loved completely by her parents if she does not achieve the status her mother has set for her. It is natural for any young child to want to please a parent that has taken special interest in them. Ni Kan feels that her "prodigy side" is saying to her, "If you don't hurry up and get me out of here, I'm disappearing for good" (528). This may indicate that Ni Kan is becoming impatient about becoming a prodigy and she fears that if it does not happen soon she will "always be nothing" in her mother's eyes (528). Tan reinforces this feeling in the story when Ni Kan's mother constantly "points out" other children who have already succeeded. Ni Kan may feel inferior to these other children or perhaps even feels that her mother believes her to be inferior. She begins to take less interest in her mother's testing and does her best to discourage it. Her mother becomes disappointed and relents. After Ni Kan sees her "mother's disappointed face once again", something inside her begins to die (529). She begins to rebel and now she sees the "prodigy" in her as the cause of the rebellion.
The author vaguely uses another motivating force in the story when she describes the relationship with the young girl's aunt. In the second paragraph of the story, Ni Kan's mother states, "What does Auntie Lindo Know? Her daughter is only best tricky" (527). Later in the story Ni Kan's mother and aunt are bragging about their own daughters to one another. Auntie Lindo brags about the amount of trophies that her daughter brings home and Ni Kan's mother brags that, "Our problem worser than yours" referring to Ni Kan playing her music (531). The author is subtly trying to show that there is competition between the two mothers. This is an underlying motivation for Ni Kan's mother in the story that succeeds very well.
The mother's interest in Ni Kan's as her prodigy is renewed a few months later after seeing a very talented girl playing piano on television. The mother sets up piano lessons for her daughter and later buys a piano. Ni Kan shows no interest in the lessons and is "determined not to try" (531). She "never corrected" herself when she made mistakes (531). This lack of interest on the part of Ni Kan will come into play nearly a year later when she is entered in a talent show. Despite Ni Kan's good attitude at the talent show, she fails to perform and feels she has disappointed everyone including herself. Her mother had "a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything" (533). Ni Kan, in the embarrassment of the moment, "felt the same way" (533). The conflict between mother and daughter changes when Ni Kan says, "I wish I were dead! Like them" (534). Ni Kan was referring to the mother's lost family. In the story, the mother does not pressure her daughter again to become a prodigy. The author does not make suggestions as to why Ni Kan's mother apparently gives up hope for her becoming a prodigy. It appears that Ni Kan goes on to lead an average life without her mother ever pressuring her again.
Although the piano was a source of tension between them, the author uses it as a "peace offering" in the story when Ni Kan's mother offers to give it to her. The fact that her mother even offered the piano to her seems to bring some peace to the conflict between mother and daughter. In the story, Ni Kan stated that, "It was enough that she had offered it to me" and that it had made her "feel proud, as if it were a trophy I had won back" (535). The author also seems to use a piece of music to reflect how Ni Kan has felt about the conflict with her mother. After the death of her mother, Ni Kan looks through the music at the piano. She finds two pieces of music opposite each other in the book. The first piece is "Pleading Child" and the second is "Perfectly contented". These two titles suggest the emotions of Ni Kan as a child and her emotions now as an adult. These emotions are symbolically brought together when Ni Kan realizes "they were two halves of the same song" (535).
- Tan, Amy. "Two Kinds". Literature, Reading Reacting,Writing. 5th ed.
- Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Heinle, 2004. 527-535.
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