In The Triple Package, Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both Yale law professors, lay out the premise that three specific traits — a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control — lie behind what they call the disproportionate success of certain ethnic groups in the U.S. The book reads partly like a sociological text, partly a self-help primer. The chosen ethnic groups are Asians, Indians, Jews, Mormons, Cubans, Iranians, Nigerians and Lebanese, and the theory is laid out in very broad brush strokes. It has set off a round of firestorms, with critics decrying what they call its selective grouping and reverse racism. Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and no stranger to controversy, says that she is shocked by the reactions. Excerpts from an interview:
Was this book the result of long years of observation or did you guys have an Eureka moment?
Actually, this book precedes the Tiger Mom book. My husband and co-author Jed Rubenfeld taught seminars on these themes in 2008; we did the research needed for The Triple Package for five years. And then, somehow or the other, Tiger Mom was published first and actually, it set the tone for this book.
The triple package, you say, can be a double-edged sword. How so?
One-third of The Triple Package explores the underside of the three precepts that go to make up the package: superiority, insecurity and impulse control. It talks of the conflicted situation: on the one hand, you do well, you are proud of your accomplishments; on the other hand, you never feel you are good enough. You are always the outsider. So, insecurity is a prime motivator.
There is mention of and I quote, ‘tacit quotas’ being applied against East Asians in Ivy League schools. Could you elaborate on that?
Actually, I’d like to refer you to Ron Unz on this one. He has written about how, at some of the Ivy schools, test scores are artificially deflated, and that some form of discrimination is going on, both implicit and explicit.
Does economic disparity place its own bar on impulse control?
I’d say impulse control is all over the map. But yes, as one acquires more wealth, gets used to a more comfortable lifestyle, one does lose that edge, that insecurity. Then you are not hungry any more, you are not afraid.
I’d like to cite the example of my own daughters here. They are far more comfortably placed than I was at their age, and I notice they are not manifesting much insecurity or a sense of superiority, either.
How does the ‘I’ll show them’ mentality fit in with the innate need to keep one’s head down to fit in with that traditional Asian deference to authority? You stand out as an example yourself. You said you were an agreeable sort of person. Then you went and took controversy by the scruff of its neck with Tiger Mom.
Well, the two states exist uneasily. People from varied ethnic backgrounds come to the U.S. and face this massive culture clash. With survival comes a transformation, an attempt to rise above the odds. The immigrant mentality and culture is interrelated to success but not always in traditional ways.
The book has received less than generous reviews. Has that outrage gone pretty much the way you anticipated?
Would you believe it, absolutely not! We really didn’t anticipate this kind of reaction. It’s not just Jed and me, many people are shocked…outraged… that the book has been called racist. We have profiled Blacks, Hispanics…
Yes, but what The Triple Package stands accused of is reverse racism. Suketu Mehta says the terrain of race-baiting has shifted and cites The Triple Package as an example.
I reject that. It’s the culture of our times that we have to be politically correct; we cannot be too politically correct, that’s what it is. The Triple Package discusses the success of some ethnic groups, how certain behavioural traits can and do lead to success. There is nothing racist or reverse racist about it. Educators across the board have liked The Triple Package.
You talk of superiority and a sense of insecurity acting as spurs. Would you agree that in many cases, these very feelings might have an individual retreat instead of pushing forwards? Where do individual traits figure in The Triple Package?
As we have stated in the book, the difference between Triple Package individuals and Triple Package groups is that members of the latter are pushed by family and culture to work hard and strive, whereas a Triple Package individual may have no resources to draw on other than his or her own.
The Triple Package troika needs some sort of base, institutions that reward delayed gratification and hard work. Are there many such institutions in the U.S. today?
Yes, indeed. The U.S. is still the land of opportunity for those who would make the best use of it.
Across the board, does the triple package work only if the people identify strongly with their ethnic heritage?
No. At the end of the day, it is about individuals. The sense of exceptionality is an individual trait. Feeling that you are the centre of your own universe is an individual trait. I offer Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as examples here. One rose from a background of poverty, the other from the challenges of a mixed heritage. Both these charismatic men took the outsider element and turned it into an asset.
Why exactly does the triple package have a limited shelf life?
Success has its own destruction built into it. Your sense of being an outsider diminishes the longer you are in the U.S. By the third generation of immigrants, the old patterns start to fade and this generation gets to, largely, make their own life choices; there is greater commingling with local communities, career aspirations change. The hold of the triple package loosens.
The triple package assumes a position of self-ghettoisation. Would you agree?
This question is, indeed, food for thought. I’d say that the triple package becomes a sort of ethnic armour, a shield to wear as you go about doing what you do every day of your life. Even among these disproportionately successful ethnic groups, there are sharp differences. Chinese American success has been more restricted in scope when compared to Indian American success.
On a related note, are you suggesting a more controlled style of parenting will be better for America’s young?
Well, yes and no. if you read about filmmaker Ang Lee and designer Vera Wang’s experiences in The Triple Package, the controlled parenting pattern seems to have worked for them. Another sort of reader/parent may not agree with these tenets at all. It definitely is not that one size fits all.