Jing-mei is strong willed (she got it from her mama) but a lot of that strength of will manifests in the least helpful way possible: Jing-mei undercuts her own successes in life just to show everyone she can. That's the adult equivalent of a toddler holding their breath to win an argument.
When she was little, Jing-mei was adamant about asserting her right to fall short of expectations and just be who she was. This was an act of both self-realization and self-sabotage:
And after seeing my mother’s disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die. I hated the tests, the raised hopes and the failed expectations. Before going to bed that night, I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and when I saw only my face staring back – and it would always be this ordinary face – I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror.
And then I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised to myself. I won’t be what I’m not. (II.4.17)
Jing-mei herself admitted that she might have become a decent pianist if she had tried. But instead, she tried very hard not to be a good pianist. And hey: she succeeded. (Woo-hoo?)
Out of all the daughters, Jing-mei develops the least personally. You get the sense that she feels unmoored: unsure of who she is, unsure of where she comes from, and unsure of her personal value. She gets her feelings hurt easily, and has a strong tendency to think that she can only be what she is today, and nothing better.
We're going to get a little Freud-lite here: a lot of Jing-mei's issues spring from living in her mother’s shadow. Her mother, Suyuan, is extremely capable and driven, and also a great cook and mah jong player.
When Suyuan dies, Jing-mei has to fill her shoes, not only by replacing her at the Joy Luck Club, but by stepping up to fulfill her mother’s greatest wish: to meet Suyuan’s twin daughters and tell them about Suyuan’s life.
A lot of this book—in fact, we'd go so far as so say the central narrative—is about Jing-mei’s path toward discovering her mother and discovering herself at the same time.
Jing-mei begins the novel as remembering Suyuan as hyper-critical and demanding. Jing-mei always felt that she had disappointed her mother’s high expectations, and that her mom refused to see her for who she was.
But Jing-mei’s comes to the realization that her mother did love her. An important moment of reflection comes via the memory of a New Year’s dinner—Jing-mei got belittled by Waverly and served herself some crab of dubious quality.
Jing-mei's mom scolded her for failing to recognize "best quality"—a statement that was ostensibly about taking the inferior crab, but was also about Jing-mei's lack of self-respect. Suyuan then gave Jing-mei a green jade pendant, calling it Jing-mei’s "life importance." Suyuan told her daughter that the jade isn’t good quality, but it does improve with time.
The point? Jing-mei is like this young jade, improving and deepening as she ages. (For more on the jade pendant, check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.")
Jing-mei's understanding of her mother's love only deepens when she travels to China to find her long-lost half-sisters. Jing-mei had always been aware of the gap her sisters had left in Suyuan's life—after all, Jing-mei's name was fraught with their absence. ("Jing" means the essence of something, and "mei" means little sister. Basically, she was named to be the essence of her older sibs.)
But the process of meeting her sisters and fulfilling her mother’s dream helps her understand the mother-daughter bond they shared. When she takes a picture with her newfound sisters, they all see the family resemblance:
And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it: Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish. (IV.4.146)
In this moment, we think Jing-mei has realized she can live up to her mom's expectations. Even though the novel ends at this point, we think Jing-mei went on to learn even more about her own "best quality."