June remembers Suyuan telling her that a person could be anything in America if he or she worked hard enough. Suyuan is convinced that June could be a child star after watching Shirley Temple on television, but an attempt to get cute Shirley Temple curls backfires, leaving June with a boy’s bowl haircut. Around that time, June starts to hear an inner voice tell her that if she doesn’t hurry up and become perfect, her inner prodigy will disappear and June would “always be nothing.”
As with all the Joy Luck Club mothers, Suyuan believes wholeheartedly that her daughter has limitless potential, especially in America, where talent can raise an individual’s status, regardless of one’s heritage. Suyuan doesn’t express encouragement in a positive American way though, and June feels unloved because of the miscommunication.
Suyuan and June try different avenues of talent to find something June is amazing at, but they always end up deeply disappointed. At the same time, Waverly becomes a chess prodigy, and Lindo brags about her daughter’s victories. June can see Suyuan’s envy, even though Suyuan says Waverly is only good at being tricky.
The mothers’ competitiveness represents a common parental trait in immigrant families. Finally able to give their children full access to resources in ways they never had, parents see their children as measures or markers of their own success.
June gets sick of seeing Suyuan’s disappointment, and one night, looks at herself in the bathroom mirror and cries at her own “sad, ugly” expression. In that moment, she believes she’s not meant to be a prodigy and promises herself to not let her mother change her into someone unrecognizable.
This moment of autonomy is complex, because June argues that her authentic self is what fate determines, not what her mother pressures her to be. At the same time, June might be fated to be a prodigy, but her stubbornness resists the potential.
Suyuan sees a little Chinese girl playing the piano on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and decides that June should excel at that. Having no spare money, Suyuan agrees to clean an old piano teacher’s house in exchange for June’s lessons. She also saves precious wages to get June a used piano. June whines, asking Suyuan “why don’t you like me the way I am? I’m not a genius!” Suyuan slaps her and calls her ungrateful.
Because she is fundamentally unable to understand her mother’s pressure for success, having not grown up in a culture with minimal resources, June thinks Suyuan doesn’t value who she is. In contrast, Suyuan wants what’s best for June, and will sacrifice herself to get June opportunities.
June starts her piano lessons, but quickly learns that her old teacher is deaf and can only feel rhythms. She stops trying to play correctly and just stays in rhythm so her teacher will praise her playing. Adult June thinks that she never really gave herself a fair chance, because she was actually quite good naturally, but was determined not to play well.
June’s cleverness to subvert the lesson reveals that she actually has more intelligence and natural talent than she herself believes. June is resistant to her own potential, just to spite her mother.
The pointless lessons continue, and June gets more apathetic as Suyuan becomes more boastful of June’s “talents,” despite never having heard June play. Suyuan enters June in a talent show, to play “Pleading Child” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. June daydreams rather than prepares, and practices her ending curtsy more than the song. She believes her natural talent will see her through the performance.
Unlike the mothers’ upbringings, which all required major sacrifice at an early age, the daughters don’t have a true grasp of overcoming hardship or doing things they don’t want to do. June’s dreamy ignorance shows how little she has had to learn about effort.
The day of the talent show, all of the Joy Luck Club members are in attendance, and June comes on stage, completely confident. The beginning of the song sounds so good to daydreaming June that she loses track of her notes, and messes up the entire piece. June is stunned by her failure, but Suyuan is completely humiliated after bragging so much. Waverly tells June that not everyone can be a prodigy, and the gravity of June’s self-imposed mediocrity sets in. June blames her mother for the humiliating debacle.
June accepted her fate rather than try to surpass expectations by working hard. The result is an unimpressive showing that reflects not only on her, but her mother as well. As with all the novel’s relationships, repercussions on the daughters always negatively affect the mothers, and vice versa, because their lives are more intertwined than the cultural gap seems to suggest.
Two days later, Suyuan tells June to practice at her usual time in the afternoon; June assumed that the talent show failure meant she was free from ever playing again. June throws a tantrum, accusing Suyuan of wanting a daughter that June can’t be. June feels the dark side of her come out, and shouts “I wish I were dead! Like them,” in reference to Suyuan’s lost daughters in China. Suyuan is so hurt that she backs out of the room and never speaks of the piano again.
June’s complete disrespect for Suyuan’s past daughters is so hurtful that Suyuan gives up on June’s potential gift, despite all her sacrifices leading up to the awful talent show. June is too self-centered to recognize the magnitude of her cruel statement, or the depth of her mother’s sacrifice to try to save her twin daughters.
In the following years, June believes that to be authentic to herself, she has the right to fall short of expectations. Having internalized this sentiment, she constantly fails at life goals. On June’s thirtieth birthday, Suyuan gives her the used piano, saying that June had natural talent and could’ve been a genius if she tried.
Again, fate acts “half by expectation, half by inattention” as stated by Rose in an earlier chapter. June expects never to be a prodigy, because that’s not her true self. Yet by not attentively bettering herself, June actualizes her fears of mediocrity. On the other hand, Suyuan always believed in June’s abilities, even after June let her down.
Soon after Suyuan’s passing, June gets the piano reconditioned for “purely sentimental reasons,” and discovers her old lesson books in the piano bench. She flips to “Pleading Child,” the same song she botched in the talent show, and learns that a song called “Perfectly Contented,” printed on the adjacent page, is actually the other half of “Pleading Child.” Together, they make up one complete song.
The realization that two drastically different songs can combine into one complete song shows that fate and autonomy do not have to be polar opposites of one another. June does not have to abandon learned talent for the sake of authenticity, because they actually converse together.