To Jing-mei's mother, America is the Land of Opportunity. She has high hopes that her daughter will be a great success as a prodigy. She's not precisely sure where her daughter's talents lie, but she is sure that her daughter possesses great ability — it is simply a matter of finding the right avenue for Jing-mei's talents. First, Mrs. Woo tries to mold her daughter into a child actress, but that doesn't work. Then she tries intellectual tests clipped from popular magazines. Jing-mei doesn't show promise in this area, either. Finally, Mrs. Woo hits upon the answer: Jing-mei will be a piano virtuoso.
Mrs. Woo trades housecleaning services for Jing-mei's piano lessons from Mr. Chong, an elderly piano teacher, who is deaf and whose eyes are too weak to tell when Jing-mei is playing the wrong notes. Mr. Chong's efforts are so sincere that Jing-mei picks up the basics, but she is so determined not to cooperate that she plays very badly.
One day, the Woos meet Lindo Jong and her daughter Waverly. Mrs. Jong brags about Waverly's success as a chess prodigy. Not to be outdone, Jing-mei's mother brags about her daughter's "natural pride," and the young girl immediately becomes even more determined than ever to thwart her mother's ambitions.
Continuing to clean houses, Mrs. Woo scrapes together enough money to buy a secondhand piano. A few weeks later, Jing-mei participates in a talent show in a church hall. All the couples from the Joy Luck Club come to her piano debut. Although she has not practiced and does not know the music, Jing-mei has come to believe that she is indeed a prodigy. Halfway through the song, though, she begins to realize how badly she is playing. The weak applause and her parents' disappointed looks reveal the unmistakable truth: Jing-mei is not a musical prodigy.
As a result, Jing-mei is shocked when her mother expects her to continue practicing. During the ensuing quarrel, Jing-mei shouts the most hateful thing she can summon: "I wish I'd never been born! I wish I were dead! Like them!" At the mention of the twin daughters in China that she was forced to abandon years ago, Mrs. Woo suddenly retreats and never mentions the piano again. As a result, Jing-mei is shocked when her mother offers her the piano as a thirtieth birthday present. Only after her mother's death can Jing-mei accept the piano. As she is packing her mother's things, she sits down to play the piano for the first time in many years.
The story focuses on two themes: the American Dream and the tension between mothers and daughters. Like many immigrants, Mrs. Woo believes in America's promise: With hard work and a little luck, Jing-mei can be anything that she chooses to be. Jing-mei will not have to undergo any of her mother's hardships — the terror and privations of war, the tragedy of losing children, and the difficulties of settling in a new culture. It is not enough that Jing-mei be merely successful, however. With her mother's guidance, Jing-mei can be a prodigy, towering above ordinary children. Prodigies, however, are born with an innate talent that manifests itself under the proper guidance, as has Waverly Jong's chess genius. To discover the fallacy of Mrs. Woo's reasoning, all we have to do is contrast Waverly's instant fascination with chess to Jing-mei's refusal to practice the piano. Furthermore, Waverly receives only a few chess pointers from an old man in the park before she begins winning tournaments; in contrast, Jing-mei is given extensive (if inept (personal tutoring, yet she still plays badly in the talent contest.
In addition, Jing-mei has no desire to cooperate with her mother. On the contrary, she fights her every step of the way. "I didn't have to do what my mother said anymore. I wasn't her slave. This wasn't China. I had listened to her before and look what happened. She was the stupid one," she decides. Determined to thwart her mother's ambitions, Jing-mei neglects practicing the piano.
It is only after her mother's death that Jing-mei begins to realize what her mother had wanted for her. She looks back over the music that she formerly shunned and discovers something that she hadn't noticed before. The song on the left-hand side of the page is called "Pleading Child"; the one on the right, "Perfectly Contented." Suddenly, Jing-mei realizes that the two titles are two halves of the same song. This realization brings together the theme of the tension between mothers and daughters. The mothers and daughters in this book are separated by many factors — age, experience, ambition, and culture. The "pleading child" cannot be "perfectly contented" because she cannot resolve her difficulties with her mother — and herself. In her struggle with her mother, she is struggling with her own identity. Who is Jing-mei? Chinese? American? Some combination of the two? She feels that she must reject her mother in order to find herself. Yet in doing so, she is rejecting her heritage and her identity. This book explores the various ways that mothers and daughters relate to each other as the daughters are struggling to forge their own place in the world.
As such, the theme of this story easily transcends the immigrant experience. Children from many cultures and backgrounds steadfastly refuse to believe in their parents' dreams for their future. Whether their parents are on-track or misguided, many children cannot see the value of applying themselves to a goal, practicing a skill, and cooperating with others' plans. In her refusal to accede to her mother's wishes, Jing-mei becomes cruel. She strikes back at her mother with the strongest weapon she can muster — verbally reminding her mother of the central tragedy of her life. And Jing-mei wins the argument — or does she?
Tan also explores the effect of popular culture on the immigrant. Mrs. Woo gets her ideas from television and popular magazines. She does not question the validity of these sources. The magazines range from the bizarre — Ripley's Believe It or Not — to the commonplace — Good Housekeeping and Reader's Digest. Everything has been predigested for mass consumption.
Shirley Temple a famous child actress. Born in 1928, she made her film debut at age three in Stand Up and Cheer. Admired for her mop of blond ringlets, her coy, flirtatious pizazz, and her affected, plucky singing and dancing, she became one of the most famous and popular of all child stars in the 30s. Among her best-loved films are Little Miss Marker (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), Heidi (1937), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). She continued to appear in films through her teen years, and after her second marriage, she became active in politics. After an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1967, she served as a United Nations delegate (1969-70). In 1974, she was named U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. Today, she uses the name Shirley Temple Black.