Mr. Chong and Suyuan entered Jing-mei in a talent contest. Jing-mei played “Pleading Child” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. Everyone from the Joy Luck Club attended the show. Refusing to practice hard but still vaguely believing that her inner prodigy would emerge and allow her to play well, Jing-mei came to the recital entirely unprepared. She sat down feeling confident, but the performance proved a disaster. Two days later, when Suyuan insisted that she continue her regular schedule of practice, Jing-mei declared that she wished she were dead like her two sisters (Suyuan’s long-lost children from her first marriage in China). Suyuan never mentioned piano lessons again.
Years later, Suyuan offered the family’s piano to Jing-mei as a gift for her thirtieth birthday. She stated quietly that Jing-mei could have become a skilled pianist if she had tried. A few months after Suyuan’s death, Jing-mei had the piano tuned. When she tried to play “Pleading Child,” she was surprised how easily the music returned to her. She then played the piece on the facing page, “Perfectly Contented.” After playing both pieces several times, she realized that they were complementary pieces, as if two halves of the same song.
Like the first two stories of the section, these latter stories examine the struggle between Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters. In “Half and Half,” Rose Hsu recalls her mother telling her about The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, the book that is mentioned in the section’s opening parable. She explains that every child is exposed to one particular danger on certain days, according to his or her birthday. Because the book is in Chinese, Rose is never able to understand it. Even her mother, An-mei, cannot be sure when to worry, because she cannot translate the book’s dates, which use the Chinese lunar calendar, into American dates. Rose’s explanation of The Twenty-six Malignant Gates sheds light on the section’s opening parable. Did the mother in the parable know for sure that the daughter was fated to fall on her bicycle, or was she, like An-mei, constantly scared because of her inability to translate the book into English? Or was she merely anticipating the possibility that her daughter could fall? The parable makes us wonder how the fall could have been avoided: if the mother hadn’t forbidden the daughter to ride around the corner, perhaps the daughter would not have become so reckless in her anger and would not have fallen at all. Yet, if the mother had said nothing, the daughter could have fallen out of sight and earshot, as the mother initially feared.
Closely connected to the section’s examination of fate is its discussion of guilt and blame. After Bing’s death, each member of the household feels responsible. Rose connects her reluctance to make decisions to her feelings of guilt surrounding her brother’s death: not wanting to feel accountable for bad outcomes, she fears to take on any responsibility. After her husband, Ted, loses a malpractice lawsuit and is also the victim of guilt and blame, he too is unwilling to make decisions.
Rose believes that her mother also experienced feelings of guilt and resignation. She asserts that her mother lost her faith in God after Bing’s death. As evidence, she points to the way An-mei stopped carrying her Bible to church and began using it as a wedge under a too-short leg of the kitchen table. Because Rose herself sank into passivity after Bing’s death, she assumes her mother reacted the same way. Yet, by the end of her story, she also notices that her mother sweeps the Bible off and keeps it from gathering dust. The fact that Bing’s name is written under the heading “Deaths” in erasable pencil demonstrates that An-mei still values the Bible enough to find meaning in the act of inscribing her dead son’s name there. The erasable pencil speaks to her belief that Bing might still live. After the loss of Bing, An-mei may have become less openly religious, but she never resigned herself to thinking that human beings have no control over what happens to them. Thus, when Rose asks why she should try to save her marriage, saying there is no hope, no reason to try, An-mei responds that she should try simply “because [she] must. . . . This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate . . . what you must do.” Rose believes her mother is bitter and hardened from Bing’s death, but her story about her marriage shows that Rose herself suffered the most lasting emotional damage.
Jing-mei’s story also deals with a clash between a mother’s faith and belief in persistence versus a daughter’s inner sense of futility. Jing-mei believes that she is simply not “fated” to be a prodigy, that ultimately there resides within her an unchangeable element of mediocrity. When she tells her reflection in the mirror one night that she will not allow her mother to change her, that she will not try to be what she is not, she asserts her will in a strong but negative manner. At that moment, she recalls, she saw the “prodigy side” of herself in the anger and determination that were in her face. This comment suggests that “prodigy” is really one’s will, one’s desire to succeed. In retrospect, Jing-mei muses that perhaps she never gave herself a chance at the piano because she never devoted her will to trying.