Chua: It’s already been written about with supposed quotes from me that are not me at all, so I’m getting a complex. How could this be happening again? But I am just chronically optimistic and this is supported by my last experience with the Tiger Mom book. There are so many fascinating aspects of this that we didn’t develop that I’d love to think more about. How about Catholicism? How does Hinduism fit in? How does gender fit in? I keep telling myself it’s not going to be that bad when people read because it’s a very balanced book.
Amy, you said in a recent interview that you just want to be liked, that U.S. readers didn’t understand the irony of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. In hindsight would you have gone about that book differently?
Chua: I tend to be not very big into regrets, and to be honest, there have been some very rough moments and we’re sort of going through one of these periods now. Jed will tell you, I’ve just been so bummed out. I can’t pick up a nice word anywhere. It’s no-holds-barred. It’s so harsh. It’s not just, like, “I disagree with you.” It’s “You’re this terrible racist.” It’s awful. But the flip side of it is that I’ve heard from so many interesting people and travelled to interesting countries. So on balance, I feel like it was worth it. Certainly nobody can say that I’ve had a boring last few years.
The book’s message can be read as conservative: Lose your heritage to the forces to assimilation and you lose your mojo.
Chua: Well, it’s funny, I was just talking to a friend of mine who’s African-American who was saying in a certain sense it’s actually a very leftist book. We say that the most successful groups in America today are actually of all different races and backgrounds. It’s not this kind of old-fashioned culture of poverty thing. It’s like, after two generations, these groups that were once successful decline and then new ones come in.
How much of this success or failure is individual or cultural? How do you tease the two apart?
Rubenfeld: It’s always an individualized experience in every case. Culture, to have any effect, has to work through individuals, and what we’re calling culture in the book is an interaction of people with the society around them, like immigrants who had to deal with America. It’s not that we’re talking about some kind of primordial Chinese or Indian culture in the United States.
You are setting up some pretty traditional metrics of success: Top-tier schools, Nobel Prizes, Forbes lists. But what about looking at how cultures inform innovation, entrepreneurial skills, counterintuitive thinking?
Chua: Our point is almost the opposite. We’re looking at groups that are successful in this very narrow way and we’re not saying that this is a happier life or a better life. One of the things we say is bad about this kind of Triple Package combination is that it pushes people into these very conventional, narrow professions because that’s what you need to show. It’s like if you’re an Iranian-American and you’re worried that everybody thinks that you’re a terrorist, you are going to want your child to be a doctor or a lawyer so that they can seem respectable. We are pretty repeatedly clear about how that can be very confining, almost like a prison.