Sounding a little wounded from the wrath that greeted her 2011 parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua has nonetheless jumped back into the pop-ethnography circus with a new book and fresh controversy. Written with her husband, fellow Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America posits another theory about collective identity, one that toe-tests – or perhaps leaps over – the line of political correctness: Some U.S. cultural groups, the couple say, are bound to be more successful than others.
Tracking the trajectories of U.S. minorities such as Iranians, Indians, Mormons, Jews and Chinese, among many others, the couple define three cultural drivers that lift them to the Ivy Leagued, Wall Street or Forbes-listed rungs of achievement. They possess a sense of cultural or historical mission which the authors call a “superiority complex.” They also have an insecurity complex, which means they will feel compelled to vindicate themselves as a result of their collective traumas. They have strong impulse control, an ability to forgo pleasure for future gains.
The book isn’t a collection of flame-tossing whimsy: The research staff acknowledged at the back of the book is the size of a small minority unto itself. Nearly half of its 300 pages consist of footnotes and endnotes to support its contentious arguments: The sense of entitlement that comes from a superiority complex is a leading cause of WASP decline, while Appalachians have the opposite problem – a sense of inferiority makes them feel as though they are not deserving of the same success as other cultures. The authors note their concern about the weakening of impulse control among Jewish-Americans and point out that Mormons are an ideal Triple Package. Uncomfortable yet?
Why did you find it important to write this book now?
Chua: I’ve actually been interested in this topic of disproportionately successful minorities for most of my career. I wrote the book World on Fire in 2002, that was about minorities in the world, and Jed and I, we have these cultural differences. He’s Jewish and I’m Chinese-American, and we’ve noticed big differences and similarities. I used to say, “Chinese people are just two generations behind the Jews.”
The Tiger Mom has nothing on the Jewish mother.
Chua: I know! But people forget that, especially if you think about the Jewish mothers of the 19th, the early 20th century – we found these great passages where they sounded exactly like Asian-Americans today. It was, like, you have to play the piano or the violin. You have to get straight A’s, you have to be a doctor.
And how did you divide the labour?
Chua: I like all this cultural stuff. I was so interested in the Amish and Appalachians and I’m the one that kind of organized the research assistants and just got more and more books and dug in, whereas Jed is more the abstract thinker, the big picture.
Rubenfeld: Just to put it concretely, she gets up at 6 in the morning, which is about the time that I’m going to sleep, so we were actually able to double the number of working hours in a day by….
Chua: And never have to see each other.
Rubenfeld: We have 15 minutes of overlap every day in which we actually exist at the same time.
What sort of reception, or what are folks saying [about the book] in Canada, just so we can get a sense where you’re coming from?
Folks aren’t saying anything in Canada.
Amy: It’s been a big mess. It’s like a déjà vu nightmare all over again.
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.
Rubenfeld: The world centre of innovation and high-tech breakthroughs is Silicon Valley. It’s dominated by members of Triple Package groups and it’s almost awkward to talk about it. First, over half of Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants, and then if you add to those the numbers that were founded or co-founded by American Jews, you’re talking about something, like, you know, three-quarters or more of Silicon Valley startups. So I don’t think it’s true that the Triple Package values just kind of condemn people to sort of routine but high-salary jobs. In fact, as we try to say in the book, it is a fundamental piece of innovation that you have to have these qualities too because creativity doesn’t just come from walking on the beach. You have to have perseverance, you have to be able to take a lot of crap and adversity. You have to be like Jeff Bezos, reinvesting five years’ of profits in Amazon, not taking a penny for himself or his investors.
I wanted to know more about the role of gender, which becomes a little more complicated. Do women, generally speaking, feel more insecure in a more traditional culture?
Chua: Actually, I’ve talked to a lot of students about that. I even talked to [Facebook executive and author] Sheryl Sandberg about this because we were thinking maybe there’s a Lean In angle. To be totally honest, we have not explored this solid research but it’s something I’m really interested in and if I could just get past all this, what I consider a really terrible controversy.
Rubenfeld: It is a missing part of the study. In some of the groups that we look at, let’s say Mormons, women are placed under expectations of doing less in the, let’s say, business world than the men are. Some of the Mormon success story is a highly gendered story in which the men are going out and becoming corporate leaders and the women, to some extent, are encouraged to be homemakers.
But I gather you don’t want this book to be interpreted as how-to?
Chua: I feel like the book is going to be misunderstood no matter what because it’s a very complex genre. It’s definitely not meant to be a how-to book, like a big celebration of the Triple Package. The original goal of the book was actually to present a new way of thinking about this form of success, that is really kind of warts and everything. I mean, if you notice the three terms we chose, we purposefully chose quite negative terms. We could have called it “Confidence, Grit and Willpower” but we purposefully chose “Insecurity and Superiority Complex” because I think we’re actually, truthfully, quite ambivalent about these things.
Will there be a sequel?
Rubenfeld: Give us a little time to see if we survive this one and we can start thinking about it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.