Amy Chua’s 'Triple Package' is Tiger Mother Meets Horatio Alger, With a Side of Grit
Amy Chua’s new The Triple Package seems to build upon the same “Chinese are superior” motto as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother -- but it's actually more inflammatory and much less compelling than her last book.
Raw and bordering on naively personal, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sparked a lot of discussion within the Asian American community -- and reinforced many stereotypes outside the fold. I ripped through it in less than 24 hours, both horrified and fascinated. The Triple Package (which Chua co-authored with her husband, Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld) feels like it was written by speechwriters for Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, and Mitt Romney. It took me nearly a week of on-again, off-again reading to wade through a review copy.
While they never mention politics, there is no mistaking Chua and Rubenfeld’s political leanings. Triple Package could be a playbook of talking points for Republican efforts to portray themselves as the party for bootstrapping immigrant success stories. In a weird only-in-America way, I was reading The Triple Package over Super Bowl weekend, and it struck me that the book is not unlike some of those patriotic commercials: fluffed up with inspirational, feel-good images, but thin on the action points.
Which is not to say that The Triple Package is purely a fairy tale. The book purports to explain why certain cultural groups do better than others. Those groups include Jews, Chinese, Indians, Cubans, Nigerians, Lebanese, Mormons, and Iranians. And yes, these ethnic and religious groups are more successful than many in the United States. That list practically describes the top students in my high school graduating class, many of whom, at our 20-year reunion, had grown up to be doctors, lawyers, professors and executives.
Chua and Rubenfeld ascribe the success of those cultural groups to three qualities: a superiority complex, socioeconomic insecurity, and impulse control -- the triple package of the title. They admit that they’re defining success in quantitative terms of money and position (a “vulgar sense,” as they quote Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. on page 7).
Like many social and political theories, The Triple Package takes a pretty specific view, and skims over factors that don’t fit in its argument -- like the huge fact that most of those ethnic and religious groups they mention had already come from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds when they arrived here. For example, most of the Iranians who emigrated to the U.S. had fled the Ayatollah, and most of the Cubans had fled Castro; both leaders mostly persecuted the upper classes. For several decades after the Immigration Act of 1965, most Indian and Chinese immigrants could only enter the U.S. if they were highly-educated in fields such as science or engineering.
The Chubenfelds (because, c’mon, that’s how we all think of them, right?) bring up such troublesome facts occasionally – but then plow ahead with their theme of individual grit, a word they bandy about so often, I half expected to see them in cowboy hats on the book cover. Hard work, perseverance, and personal responsibility are important to advancement, sure but they’re also racial tropes commonly used to deflect discussion of discrimination and structural inequality. Nothing here is really new. It feels like a re-hash of Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, the Model Minority myth, with hint of The Bell Curve. They compare the “exceptionality” of Nigerian and Cuban immigrants to their (presumably less successful) African American and Hispanic peers. Chua and Rubenfeld marvel at the overrepresentation of the children of wealthy Nigerian immigrants at elite American universities (p. 42) but neglect to mention the controversy surrounding the way that Ivy League colleges tout these high numbers to advertise their black students, without offering opportunities to historically underprivileged African Americans. In TIME Magazine, Suketu Mehta suggests that "culture" is code for race in this book, and I can see why.
I’m also disappointed by the book’s treatment of Chinese Americans. Chua and Rubenfeld acknowledge that Asian Americans students suffer from the lowest self-esteem and highest rates of depression of any racial group, but they never addressed this as a serious ill society needs to face ... because Asian Americans also “rack up the highest grades.” (p. 111) Model minorities, indeed!
A shorter version of the book might be: the one who dies with the most toys wins. As opposed to the Amish, whom they describe as highly self-controlled, but lacking the superiority complex and materialism necessary to achieve worldly success (those shmucks!), the authors quote historian James Carroll, who praised the Mormons’ belief that “achieving world success is a ‘sign of divine favor’.” (p.186)
I would be able to place more stock in The Triple Package had the authors ever addressed changes in public education or corporate accountability as factors in the decline of America. In their section about Appalachia, they do mention corruption and exploitation of cheap labor (p.178) as a factor behind the region's entrenched poverty, but their only advice is: "Under these conditions, it takes more grit, more resilience -- perhaps a more exceptional individual -- to escape the cycle." (p.180)
In short, The Triple Package feels like a fantasy of America crafted by Hollywood or Madison Avenue. Only instead of using the images of bootstrapping and true grit to sell movies or two-ton trucks, Chua and Rubenfeld are trying to sell their ideology.
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.