When she was alive, Suyuan, Jing-mei’s mom, believed in the classic American Dream, that she and her daughter could be whatever they wanted to be.
We enter a flashback to when Jing-mei is a girl.
After seeing the wild success of Waverly, Jing-mei’s mother is convinced that her daughter can be a prodigy too.
With Suyuan’s urging, Jing-mei attempts a number of prodigy-like activities: being a Chinese Shirley Temple and attending beauty training school, memorizing the Bible, performing amazing acrobatics, etc.
At first, Jing-mei is excited about the idea of being a prodigy.
Jing-mei’s mom searches through magazines for stories about incredible children and what they are capable of, then she quizzes Jing-mei to see if Jing-mei has similar abilities. Tests range from naming the capitals of different countries to mental mathematics.
Jing-mei loses her own excitement about possibly being a prodigy when she continues to see her mom disappointed after every failed test. Instead, Jing-mei becomes determined not to be good at all of the tests, and tries to get her mom to give up on her.
On one fateful evening when Suyuan had seemingly given up the idea of Jing-mei being a prodigy, she sees a little Chinese girl pianist on The Ed Sullivan Show. Suyuan is entranced because the little girl is both Shirley Temple-ish and a good, modest Chinese child.
Jing-mei’s mom accuses Jing-mei of not being the best at anything because she isn’t trying hard enough.
Within a few days, Suyuan has arranged to clean a piano teacher’s house in exchange for Jing-mei receiving piano lessons.
Despite her kicking and screaming about not being a genius, Suyuan forces Jing-mei to go to piano lessons.
Jing-mei’s teacher is a deaf man ("Like Beethoven!") named Mr. Chong who doesn’t notice incorrect notes and thinks all of the fake stuff Jing-mei makes up is "Very good!" because he can’t hear it. So long as she plays in the proper rhythm, the notes don’t matter.
So she determines not to try – or at least to try not to be a good pianist.
After church Jing-mei hears Lindo Jong bragging to Suyuan about all of Waverly’s chess trophies. Suyuan tries to one-up Lindo by saying that Jing-mei has tremendous natural talent at piano.
Jing-mei can’t handle her mom’s prideful lies.
A few weeks later, Jing-mei has her grand debut at a talent show. She is to play "Pleading Child" by Schumann. Everyone is there, including Jing-mei’s archrival, Waverly.
She feels totally confident, and really pretty in her white dress. The only problem is, Jing-mei’s been practicing her curtsy more often than her scales.
She completely and totally bombs her piece.
Jing-mei looks at her mom, who’s horrified, and even hears little kids talking about how bad she was. The adults say vague things about Jing-mei’s performance, and Waverly makes smug comments ("You aren’t a genius like me").
Afterwards, Jing-mei assumes that her piano career is over, but her mother forces the issue, telling her to quit watching TV and get to practicing.
When Jing-mei says no, Suyuan literally drags her daughter over to the piano and forces her onto the bench.
Jing-mei yells at her mother, saying that she’s not the kind of daughter her mother wants.
Her mother says there are two kinds of daughters: obedient ones, and ones who follow their own minds. There is only room for one kind of daughter in this house: obedient ones.
To win the fight, Jing-mei brings up the babies left behind in China; she says that she’d rather be dead like the twins than be Suyuan’s daughter. Ouch.
The flashback ends and we return to the present day.
Jing-mei explains that she continued to deliberately and repeatedly fall short of expectations.
Jing-mei isn’t like her mom who believes that a person can be anything she sets her mind to; Jing-mei just thinks she’s herself and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
We flashback again to when Jing-mei is thirty years old.
That the fight over piano hasn’t been mentioned since it happened ages ago, and Jing-mei is afraid to ask her mom why she gave up hope that Jing-mei would be a prodigy.
On her thirtieth birthday, Jing-mei’s mother offers her the piano as a gift. Suyuan tells Jing-mei that she could pick up piano quickly if she wanted to. Jing-mei understands it as a sign of forgiveness.
The flashback ends and we’re back in the present with Jing-mei as an adult.
After her mother’s death, Jing-mei has the piano tuned and reconditioned for sentimental reasons.
Jing-mei sits down to play "Pleading Child," and realizes there is a companion piece called "Perfectly Contented."
After a while, she realizes they are two parts to the same song.