Tiger Mother fights back

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 4, 2014

Amy Chua aka "Tiger Mother" is ducking readers' claws again. The Yale law professor made headlines in 2011 for her memoir of authoritarian parenting Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, and her new book, The Triple Package, written with husband Jed Rubenfeld, is being slammed as racist in early reviews.

The Triple Package, out today, looks at why some minority racial or religious groups in the United States, such as Jews, Asians, immigrant Africans or Mormons, deliver more CEOs or entrepreneurs or best-selling writers than the national average.

The authors put this down to three factors or a "triple package" which fuels a powerful drive to succeed: Members of these minorities have a sense of superiority instilled about the culture they inherit, a feeling of insecurity about their position in society and the ability to delay gratification and persevere in the face of tremendous odds.

A third of the 320-page volume is taken up by around 1,000 end-notes detailing how the authors arrived at their theories. However, the singling out of certain cultural groups has clearly touched a nerve in America, where race remains a hot-button issue.

In a telephone interview from her home in Connecticut, Chua, 52, says the book has been misunderstood. "It's horrible, it's like deja vu all over again. It's very upsetting. All these people talking about it and they haven't even seen it."

In a New York Post article last month, reviewer Maureen Callahan compared The Triple Package with Chua's best-selling 2011 memoir Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother and alleged that both books endorse the idea that some races are superior to others.

Of The Triple Package, she wrote: "It's a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes and it's meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people."

But Chua hits back at the article, saying: "This book is the opposite of what the New York Post says. This superiority thing, people are getting it so mixed up. We say that many groups have a sense of exceptionality but we never say some groups are superior. It's like the media blending these words, it's totally backward.

"Some groups are doing well now but it changes over time."

Listening in to part of the interview, Rubenfeld, 55, adds: "It's a fact that some groups are doing better in some ways. It can't be that we're not allowed to talk about this. We won't be able to understand the world and what it takes to survive in the modern economy if we don't talk about it."

In a commentary published in Time magazine, creator and chief blogger of the Careerist Vivia Chen said as much, saying that Chua's new book has made many people nervous because many Americans are uncomfortable about talking about race and success.

Some readers have made much of the fact that Chua and Rubenfeld are from the groups that their book says are most successful in America. Rubenfeld is Jewish. His late father was a psychologist and his mother an art critic. Rubenfeld is a professor at Yale Law School like his wife and also writes historical mysteries which are occasionally bestsellers.

The Triple Package arose from their conversations about how two people from such different backgrounds could end up roughly having the same career. "Jed was raised totally differently than I was. His parents were 1960s liberal, all 'pursue your passion'," says Chua, whose immigrant Chinese parents are her sternest critics. Her father was a professor of engineering at the University of California (Berkley) and her mother a housewife.

"Even now when I go give a book talk, everyone will say: 'You're amazing'. My mum will say: 'You were good, but you spoke a little fast'. She's the only one telling me the truth."

Four years ago, Chua was a little-known academician with two scholarly works to her credit, one on the great empires of the past, Day Of Empire (2007), and World On Fire (2002), which looked at countries where ethnic minorities were far wealthier than the average and how this could lead to conflict.

Then the strains of family life led her to pour her heart out about her parenting experience in late 2010.

"I wrote Tiger Mum in three months when my daughter rebelled, my sister got sick, she had leukaemia," she says, recalling how younger daughter Louisa threw a tantrum at a restaurant and forced her to rethink her parenting regimen.

Most readers ignore the book's long subtitle which she says put her authoritarian parenting methods in persepctive.

"This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old."

The culprit, she says, is a January 2011 extract published in the Wall Street Journal and titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

When the book finally came out, many readers tore it apart and accused her of cruelty and child abuse.

Among the examples cited by reviewers were that daughters Sophia and Louisa were not allowed to sleep over at friends' houses or get any grade less than an A.

Today, Louisa, 18, is applying to Ivy League Schools. Sophia, 21, is in Harvard, and maintains a "tiger cub" blog where she often states her affection for her parents.

"It just rebuts all these stereotypes that if you have strict parents, you become shy and robotic," says Chua. "I don't think it's so bad to have high expectations. My parents unconditionally loved me, a lot of Westerners just can't see that. By having high expectations of me, they said: 'You are amazing, you can do anything - you just haven't done it yet'."

As Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother hit the bestseller charts - selling close to 21,000 copies in Singapore alone - Time magazine published a cover story querying whether "tiger parenting" was responsible for the rise in Asia, academics began researching differences in parenting styles between Asian-Americans and other groups - studies mentioned in The Triple Package - while Chua found herself alternately being reviled in e-mail and becoming a celebrity at Chinese restaurants.

"It's very strange," she says with a laugh. "At school, if you ask students, I'm well known for being really supportive and nurturing. This reputation for being scary, controlling, to a lot of people who know me, it's a strange public persona."

Both Chua and Rubenfeld insist that The Triple Package is not a follow-up book, or a how-to or parenting guide. Yet they realise many readers might take it that way. "That's kind of what happened with Tiger Mum," says Chua. "It wasn't a how-to book but people said: 'Oh my God, she got her daughter into Harvard, what do I do?'"

Neither of them is too worried, since the book does point out the dangers of America's present culture of glorifying instant gratification rather than old-school perseverance.

Rubenfeld says: "One of the takeaway points is that in Western countries, we're going to have to find ways to reward good, old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. It's just become difficult for people to see that old-fashioned values like that will be rewarded."

Chua adds: "I think to say it's cultural or something any family can do should not be that controversial. It's not racial (sic) to say that certain groups right now are doing better than others. There's a knee-jerk reaction, people say: 'You're talking about groups, it's got to be stereotyping.' That's just silly.

"I just hope the book, after it gets read, will be less controversial. I think it'll be like Tiger Mum. A lot of people who were so angry at me after the Wall Street Journal headline, after they read the book, they said: 'This is totally different from what I thought'. So that's kind of what I'm hoping will happen now."

Review Non-fiction


by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Bloomsbury/Paperback/320 pages/$27 before GST/major bookstores/**1/2

The Triple Package does not set out to be racist or endorse stereotypes. Unfortunately, sloppy presentation of the authors' extensive research has led to widespread misunderstanding of the original intent.

Chua and Rubenfeld say in interviews that they want to start a conversation about what it takes to succeed in America, to show why some racial or religious groups dominate others in terms of proportional success - why Asian-Americans, Jews or Mormons produce more millionaires, CEOs or influential novelists than the national average.

Success, according to them, comes from a driving ambition fuelled by three factors: an innate belief in the superiority of one's culture; an insecurity about one's position in the world; and the ability to delay gratification, for example, to save rather than spend or choose careers that will be profitable, not just fun.

Examples include Afghani-American writer Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame, who was a doctor before turning to his passion of writing, or basketball star Jeremy Lin, who the authors quote as having a "chip on my shoulder" about being Asian-American and thus was driven to excel in sports.

So far, so stereotypical, but the other point the authors have tried to make is that the dominance of a racial or cultural group happens in cycles. The Protestant work ethic of the 1900s dies away as children of successful parents inherit wealth and forget to strive, and the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are naturally supplanted by hungry immigrants.

None of this is news but it would have been interesting if presented with separate chapters devoted to the chronology of a group's success and even historical decline.

Unfortunately, The Triple Package is devoted instead to chapters arguing the validity of proposing this trifecta of success. But the actual stories blend confusingly into each other. Worse is the decision not to burden each sentence or phrase with footnotes or numbered sources. Many readers may choose to believe that the authors are making sweeping statements rather than going through the third of the book - 95 pages - which details the studies or interviews that led them to make each point.

A page-by-page reading of these notes leads to some further anxiety over the reliability of the authors' statements. Personal essays and interviews jostle with extensive academic studies, not always in a complementary fashion. Some studies as old as 1996 are quoted as "recent" on page 110 for the purposes of endorsing the authors' argument that Asian-American parents push their children harder, while a newer study last year disproving this point is nicely dismissed on page 128.

Chua's notoriety as an over-achieving "Tiger Mother", as detailed in her 2011 bestselling memoir, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, will lead to some reviewer bias, especially in countries unable to dissociate talk about race from racism. Indeed, early readers for the New York Post and New York Magazine called The Triple Package "a series of shock arguments" and a book "designed to provoke".

They missed the point. There are other books like The Triple Package, including one cited in the book, Getting Rich by Lisa Keister (2005), about how America's wealthy became that way.

I would say The Triple Package is not provocative enough, especially for readers in Asia who still subscribe to the ethic of hard work which the authors endorse as crucial to success.

The sole new and interesting idea in the book is the thesis that the absence of one or more Triple Package elements is what makes it harder for groups such as inner-city blacks or poor whites in the Appalachians to break out of the poverty cycle. Blacks, according to the authors, have long been denied their cultural stories of triumph, whereas members of the Chinese or Iranian communities are brought up to revere their history.

Similarly, those from the Appalachians are confronted by negative images of their community, often referred to as "white trash" or "hillbillies", the authors say, citing author Jim Goad's 1997 book The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks And White Trash Became America's Scapegoats. Chua and Rubenfeld should have developed these ideas further, examining the lives of high-profile members of the black or Appalachian community to see what helped them succeed. That would have been worth the hype and any controversy, rather than this rehash of some rather old ideas.

If you like this, read: Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2010, Granta, $16.60, The author examines how the cult of positive thinking led some of America's supposedly finest minds to make rash decisions, leading to catastrophes such as the 2008 financial crisis.

The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld is in bookstores today. It retails at $27 before GST.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 2014

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