Tiger Mom roars again.
In The Triple Package, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” author Amy Chua and her husband and coauthor Jed Rubenfeld attempt to explore why some cultural cohorts succeed in America while others trail behind.
Specifically, they focus on eight groups: the Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban, and Mormon communities in the United States. The authors’ theory is this: These groups succeed thanks to a sense of superiority, feelings of insecurity, and strong impulse control. This so-called Triple Threat – sorry, Triple Package – offers other groups a template for becoming more academically competitive and more financially successful.
Superiority, Chua and Rubenfeld say, entails a “chip on the shoulder”: One sees this among Jews, who refer to themselves as the “chosen people,” or in the Mormon community where individuals struggle to prove that they’re not “a polygamous, almost crackpot sect.” The authors note that, among Latinos, Cuban exiles “separated themselves from America’s other, relatively poor Hispanic communities” because of Cubans’ elevated view of themselves. And the authors say that Chinese and Iranians are well known to feel superior to others in their regions.
What pairs with superiority in the Triple Package? Paradoxically, the feeling of insecurity. Of Indians, one of the most successful groups in America, the authors say, “South Asian American parents impose [high] demands on their children simply because they believe that nonwhites in the United States have to outperform in order to succeed.”
For Iranians, “status loss, anxiety, resentment, and even trauma have been dominant themes of the Iranian experience in the United States, beginning with the hostage crisis in 1979.”
Among Asian families – by which they say they mean Chinese, Japanese, and Korean families – “children are frequently taught that ‘failing’ – for example, by getting a B – would be a disgrace for the whole family.” Chua and Rubenfeld say that, because of the pressure on these groups of living up to their feelings of superiority, these cohorts experience higher insecurity, which in turn drives them to work harder than others.
Which brings them to the final component of the triad: impulse control. Mormons famously refrain from drinking. There is a Chinese practice of chi ku, which literally means “eating bitterness” or enduring hardship. Chua and Rubenfeld write that, in schools in China, Taiwan, or Singapore, students undergo many more hours of banal memorization and drilling than their American counterparts do. Of Jews who immigrated to the US in the early 1900s, the authors say they “brought with them habits of heightened discipline, religious prohibitions, and hard work.” Citing the marshmallow test, a famous experiment that associates early childhood impulse control with greater academic success years later, the authors say that these groups’ ability to forgo short-term pleasures for long-term gains indicates greater success down the line.
While Chua and Rubenfeld manage to explain their theory clearly, they gloss over so many issues that it’s difficult to take their premise seriously. For instance, they explore the Nigerian immigrant community, but they circumvent a real discussion of nonimmigrant black Americans’ struggles. Instead, they say, “Superiority is the one narrative that America has relentlessly denied or ground out of its black population.” OK, but in what way? While they paint black history with broad brush strokes – “slavery, violence, the breaking up of families, exclusion, systematic discrimination, and so on” – they neglect to discuss the effect of institutional racism against blacks any further.
Which brings up another point: Though Chua and Rubenfeld claim to explore cultural groups, they refuse to say that they’re specifically exploring racial and religious groups. Perhaps the authors want to sidestep any claims of racism, an easy accusation in a book that details the superiority of the authors’ heritages (Chinese and Jewish, respectively).
But “The Triple Package” is not racist per se. It’s true that the authors hope to fan the flames of the culture wars with this so-called sociology and self-help text. Indeed, the book capitalizes on white American fears that immigrant and ethnic children will do better than their own. And while the authors do problematize the success achieved as a result of this triad of traits – significant rates of depression, for instance – they simultaneously recommend that America gets back on the Triple Package track. In the quest to answer “What happened to the American Dream?,” the authors fail to engage in a more critical discussion of structural forces that prevent certain groups from succeeding.
Is a lack of these three attributes really harming America? Possibly. But the opportunistic fearmongering in this book is certainly no remedy.
Grace Bello is a frequent contributor to the Monitor’s books section.