ASIANS and Asian-Americans constitute more than 50% of the students at America’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, and 19% at Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities; and Indian Americans have the highest median household income of any ethnic group in the United States.
These and other similar statistics, as provided by the authors of the Triple Package, are the basis of this book, which attempts to discover why certain ethnic groups are more successful in specific aspects of American life. Why are so many Mormons prominent businessmen? Why are there so many Nobel prize winners who are Jews? Why are there more Chinese and Korean classical musicians?
Of course, the moment anyone starts grouping people into ethnicities or races for whatever reason, everyone gets prickly. But then, this is not the first time authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are facing criticism. Or rather, Chua, specifically, isn’t new to getting brickbats.
She shot to fame in 2011 when she wrote a piece entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior in the Wall Street Journal. That led to a book entitled Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother that further stoked fires among Western mothers (and many Asian ones as well), whom she criticised for allowing children to have sleepovers and be praised simply to raise their self-esteem.
She teamed up with husband and fellow author Rubenfeld (he writes murder mysteries when not teaching law at Yale) for this book that looks into the lives of the five most successful ethnic groups in the United States: Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Indian and Jews, along with two prominent outliers, Nigerians and Cuban exiles.
The constant emphasis on how these groups have had to endure much misery to become successful eventually might make white Americans sound like bullies, but actually, I feel that this book has a moreCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-sort of agenda: it indirectly criticises white American culture by demonstrating that other cultures are better at creating successful citizens.
What Chua and Rubenfeld argue is that a “triple package” of a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control is what promotes the upward mobility of a group of people.
By “superiority complex”, they mean one group that collectively feels it is better than other groups; and these groups raise their children to think in this manner.
They point out that Jews grow up with the notion that they are the “chosen people”, a feeling their faith instils in them; Mormons, too, subscribe to a religion based on the idea of “chosenness”.
To be fair, the authors also mention the exception to their rule: the Amish people have the same sort of “chosen people” faith but in their case, it has relegated them to the fringes of modern America.
The second item of their package, “insecurity”, is presented in a slightly more solid manner and discusses issues of scorn, fear and family. One example cited are Iranians: they choose to be identified as Persians rather than Arabs, tying themselves to the ancient great power that was Persia. When the 9/11 terror attacks took place in the United States in 2001, anti-Iranian hostility resurfaced, further reinforcing the appeal of being identified as Persian rather than Arab.
Of course, 9/11 also made life difficult for any group remotely associated with the Middle East. And this is a good thing – according to the authors, fear within individuals remains the prime motivator among successful artistes and CEOs. Here, the American idea of “learning to love yourself” is shot down because the authors believe that there needs to be a painful spur for an individual to be driven.
The last factor, impulse control, has long been a favourite topic among sociologists and psychologists who decry that fact that people these days want instant gratification. In this chapter, the authors revisit something that Chua had written about in Battle Hymn Of A Tiger Mother: how the Chinese take pride in the ability to endure hardship (though this time, it is mentioned that the Taiwanese and Koreans share the same values).
Though this book provides more substantial evidence in terms of data and examples compared with Chua’sBattle Hymn, the authors admit that some data are dubious – for instance, they write that “getting a statistical fix on Mormon income and wealth is notoriously difficult...”. What I conclude from this admission is that there could be a bias towards proving their cultural supremacy theory.
Aside from the stories of high-flying successes and the creme de la creme of these communities, Chua and Rubenfeld do point out the flip side of their triple package: Success comes at a high price, the authors write, pointing to possible suicides among Asian Americans and drug abuse increasingly in play.
You could argue that this book encourages racism. But you could also see the positive side of these stories that say success is possible even if you come from the slums; in other words, Triple Package could be deemed motivational.
I feel, however, that apart from the testimonies of high-flying CEOs or professors, Chua and Rubenfeld would have added much more depth to the book if they had also spoken to ordinary white-collar workers in each of these groups to find out what they think about the success attributed to their community.
Overall, Triple Package is still an interesting read, offering as it does a mix of history, academic studies and anecdotal evidence. The authors have made their personal experience matter by taking it to a level higher.