Memories of Music Lessons – Amy Tan’s short story, “Two Kinds”

For my next read in my Short Story reading project, I drew the eight of hearts.  The hearts suit is supposed to represent favorites that I’ve already read.  How did I decide on them?  Well, I always asterisk my favorite stories in anthologies and this one had an asterisk…  🙂

I guess this is actually the third time that I’ve read this story. It resides in one of my favorite anthologies, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories – edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which I received as a Christmas present in 1993.  I read this particular story for the first time in 1994.  Then, in October of 2007, my book club chose The Joy Luck Club to read, and this story is one of the interrelated stories contained therein.

**Note: This post contains SPOILERS, read no further if you want to first read this short story**
The story deals primarily with, as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, “a complex emotional relationship between a Chinese-born mother with a strong personality and her American-born daughter.”  That actually sounds a little boring.  For me, it brought back personal memories of my own childhood, when I was “coerced” into learning a musical instrument (violin in my case, piano in the case of this story).

The early part of the story explains how the mother is always on the lookout for stories about “remarkable children” in hopes of finding some field where the daughter will become a prodigy. At some point, when watching a young Chinese girl perform on the piano on the Ed Sullivan show, that medium becomes the latest route to prodigious-ness for the daughter.  Meaning well, the mother hires a fellow resident in their apartment building, one Mr. Chong, to give her daughter piano lessons. Sadly, Mr. Chong is deaf (“Like Beethoven!” he proudly says) and the daughter’s lessons suffer accordingly.  Her initial attempts are wonderfully described as “…some nonsense that sounded like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans.”

(below: Author Amy Tan seated at the piano in ‘happier days’)

Things come to a climax when the unwilling student performs at a talent show. Confident with an inflated sense of her own skill – thanks in a large part to having a deaf teacher – she performs miserably, embarrassing her parents.  The daughter, relieved it’s over, thinks that at least that she would never have to play the piano again, but her mother – at the next ’regularly scheduled practice time – tells her to “turn off tv” and practice.  The daughter makes a stand and it “gets ugly,” with her saying cruel things to her mother relating how “as I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.”  How many times has this parent-child confrontation taken place throughout history, and how many forms has it taken?  Great story, probably almost universally relate-able among readers.

How does this relate to my personal memories of music lessons?  Well, I’ll put that part below the fold if anyone cares to read on…

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