Two Kinds, Part Two
For the talent show, I was to play a piece called «Pleading Child» from Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. It was a simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult than it was. I was supposed to memorize the whole thing, playing the repeat parts twice to make the piece sound longer. But I dawdled over it, playing a few bars and then cheating,
looking up to see what notes followed. I never really listened to what I was playing. I daydreamed about being somewhere else, about being someone else.
The part I liked to practise best was the fancy curtsy: right foot out, touch the rose on the carpet with a pointed foot, sweep to the side, left leg bends, look up and smile.
My parents invited all the couples from the Joy Luck Club to witness my debut. Auntie Lindo and Uncle Tin were there. Waverly and her two older brothers had also come. The first two rows were filled with children both younger and older than I was. The littlest ones got to go first. They recited simple nursery rhymes, squawked out tunes on miniature violins, twirled Hula-Hoops, pranced in pink ballet tutus, and when they bowed or curtsied, the audience would sigh in unison, «Awww,» and then clap enthusiastically.
When my turn came, I was very confident. I remember my childish excitement. It was as if I knew, without a doubt, that the prodigy side of me really did exist. I had no fear whatsoever, no nervousness. I remember thinking to myself, This is it! This is it!
And I started to play. It was so beautiful. I was so caught up in how lovely I looked that at first I didn't worry how I would sound. So it was a surprise to me when I hit the first wrong note and I realized something didn't sound quite right. And then I hit another and another followed that. A chill started at the top of my head and began to trickle down. Yet I couldn't stop playing, as though my hands were bewitched. I played this strange jumble through two repeats, the sour notes staying with me all the way to the end.
When I stood up, I discovered my legs were shaking. Maybe I had just been nervous and the audience, like Old Chong, had seen me go through the right motions and had not heard anything wrong at all. I swept my right foot out, went down on my knee, looked up and smiled. The room was quiet, except for Old Chong, who was beaming and shouting, «Bravo! Bravo! Well done!» And then I saw my mother's face, her stricken face. The audience clapped weakly, and as I walked back to my chair, with my whole face quivering as I tried not to cry, I heard a little boy whisper loudly to his mother, «That was awful,» and the mother whispered back, «Well, she certainly tried.»
And now I realized how many people were in the audience, the whole world it seemed. I was aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father as they sat stiffly throughout the rest of the show.
Afterwards, the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs from the Joy Luck Club came up to my mother and father. «Lots of talented kids,» Auntie Lindo said vaguely, smiling broadly. «That was somethin' else,» said my father, and I wondered if he was referring to me in a humorous way, or whether he even remembered what I had done. Waverly looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. «You aren't a genius like me, » she said matter-of-factly. And if I hadn't felt so bad, I would have pulled her braids and punched her stomach.
But my mother's expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything. I felt the same way, and it seemed as if everybody were now coming up, like gawkers at the scene of an accident, to see what parts were actually missing. When we got on the bus to go home, my mother was silent. I kept thinking she wanted to wait until we got home before shouting at me. But when my father unlocked the door to our apartment, my mother walked in and then went to the back, into the bedroom. No accusations. No blame. And in a way, I felt disappointed. I had been waiting for her to start shouting, so I could shout back and cry and blame her for all my misery.
I assumed my talent-show fiasco meant I never had to play the piano again. But two days later, after school, my mother came out of the kitchen and saw me watching TV. «Four 0' clock, » she reminded me as if it were any other day. I was stunned, as though she were asking me to go through the talent-show torture again. I wedged myself more tightly in front of the TV.
«Tum off TV, » she called from the kitchen five minutes later. I didn't budge. And then I decided. 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 came out of the kitchen and stood in the arched entryway of the living room. «Four o'clock, » she said once again, louder. «I'm not going to play anymore, » I said nonchalantly. «Why should I? I'm not a genius. » She walked over and stood in front of the TV. I saw her chest was heaving up and down in an angry way. «No! » I said, and I now felt stronger, as if my true self had finally emerged. So this was what had been inside me all along. «No! I won't! » I screamed.
She yanked me by the arm, pulled me off the floor, snapped off the TV. She was frighteningly strong, half pulling, half carrying me toward the piano as I kicked the throw rugs under my feet. She lifted me up and onto the hard bench. I was sobbing by now, looking at her bitterly. Her chest was heaving even more and her mouth was open, smiling crazily as if she were pleased I was crying.
«You want me to be someone that I'm not! » I sobbed. «I'll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be! » «Only two kinds of daughters,» she shouted in Chinese. «Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!» «Then I wish I wasn't your daughter. I wish you weren't my mother,» I shouted. 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. «Too late change this,» said my mother shrilly.
And I could sense her anger rising to its breaking point. I wanted to see it spill over. And that's when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. «Then I wish I'd never been born!» I shouted. «I wish I were dead! Like them.»
It was as if I had said the magic words - Alakazam! - and her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf - thin, brittle, lifeless.
It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didn't get straight As. I didn't become class president. I didn't get into Stanford. I dropped out of college. For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me.
And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable. And even worse, I never asked her what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope? For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons stopped. The lid to the piano was closed, shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.
So she surprised me. A few years ago, she offered to give me the piano, for my thirtieth birthday. I had not played in all those years. I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed. «Are you sure? » I asked shyly. «I mean, won't you and Dad miss it? » «No, this your piano, » she said firmly. «Always your piano. You only one can play.» «Well, I probably can't play anymore, » I said. «It's been years. » «You pick up fast,» said my mother, as if she knew this was certain. «You have natural talent. You could been genius if you want to. » «No, I couldn't. » «You just not trying, » said my mother. And she was neither angry nor sad. She said it as if to announce a fact that could never be disproved. «Take it, » she said.
But I didn't at first. It was enough that she had offered it to me. And after that, every time I saw it in my parent's living room, standing in front of the bay windows, it made me feel proud, as if it were a shiny trophy I had won back.
Last week I sent a tuner over to my parent's apartment and had the piano reconditioned, for purely sentimental reasons. My mother had died a few months before and I had been getting things in order for my father, a little bit at a time.
After I had the piano tuned, I opened the lid and touched the keys. It sounded even richer than I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano. Inside the bench were the same exercise notes with handwritten scales, the same secondhand music books with their covers held together with yellow tape.
I opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piece I had played at the recital. It was on the left-hand side of the page, Pleading Child. It looked more difficult than I remembered.
I played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me.
And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was called Perfectly Contented. I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. Pleading Child was shorter but slower; Perfectly Contented was longer, but faster. And after I played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.