Amy Chua: Tiger mom’s new tune
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The Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, and her decidedly non-Tiger husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have written a controversial new book about success. When they walk into the rounded living room of their Manhattan pied à terre in a tower of the historic Ansonia building, the two Yale law professors are indeed gleaming with success, but in an interesting way, she in knee-high Bond girl boots, and he in a pale purple shirt and stone grey suit.
I knew I would like Chua long before I’d read her widely vilified memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,in which she talks, among other things, about berating and shaming her children into being serious about music, and not allowing them to have sleepovers or be in school plays because they are a frivolous waste of time. Around the time the book came out, I was at an all-women’s dinner party (I know: God help me). I mentioned that even though I hadn’t yet read it I thought the fact that people were so angry, and hated Chua so passionately, meant that she had something important to say. A famous lady novelist at the table seethed and steamed at the “child abuse” portrayed in the book, and the rampant soul-crushing destructiveness of tiger mothers everywhere, and the pure evil that I was defending, and therefore also very likely embodied. The ambience was so toxic that everyone started making excuses and leaving. I walked out into the cold night with a greater appreciation of Chua, the ability to break up dinner parties with the sheer force of your opinions being something I have always admired.
The international fracas over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother boiled down to the idea that Chua was mean to her children, and boiled down even further to the idea that she was telling other people they were not mean enough to their children. It largely ignored the actual words on the page, which are filled with self-parody and document, in fact, an intelligent, big-hearted struggle between mother and daughters, old country and new. Chua quotes one of her two daughters saying, “Mommy, you are so weird”, which is sort of the point of the book, an exploration of cultural and personal weirdness, the clash of weird with the sometimes insipid American normal.
Chua and Rubenfeld’s explosive new meditation on success, The Triple Package, has already begun to enrage people, even those who, by their own admission, haven’t read it but have simply heard about how shocking it is. The book asks the charged question of why certain ethnic groups do better than others, why certain populations instil in their children an ability to succeed to a greater extent than others. It is not a subject that we talk easily or freely about but they present evidence that certain immigrant groups in America – Jews, Asians, South Asians, Iranians, Cubans, Nigerians – seem to thrive, largely in economic terms, in test scores, college admissions, net worth and income, while others seem to have a harder time. They also look at the disproportionately large number of Asians in top music schools, of Cubans in Florida politics, of Indians in finance, and of Jews among successful comedians. Why, they ask, do some groups produce more bankers, lawyers, doctors, famous fashion designers, bestselling authors, than others?
They argue that these “successful” groups cultivate in their children a “triple package” of qualities. The first is superiority: children are encouraged to feel superior, chosen, special, turning outsider status into a badge of honour. But they believe that this sense of superiority, of being better than banal mainstream culture, has to be combined with a rousing sense of insecurity, a haunting feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough; it is the combination of these two qualities that leads to achievement, to the kind of obsessive drive that they admire.
The last part of “the triple package” is “impulse control”. In a dominant culture that places a premium on immediate gratification, on hanging out, on fulfilment over hard work, on expression over effort, the ability to defer, to control, to be disciplined is also part of the “package”.
As Rubenfeld and Chua carefully anatomise the “triple package person”, I find myself a little scared of this character: so efficient, so disciplined, so focused, so streamlined, so ambitious! She will be up at the gym while you are sleeping, she will be working with inspired concentration while you are gossiping over coffee, she will be organising her kitchen spices while you are foraging for Advil for a hangover. But then there is Chua, herself pure triple package, and she is so charming you forget to be scared of her.
“I was a fat kid with an accent and glasses and greasy hair,” she says, “and I felt great.” The reason she felt great was that her parents imbued her with a sense of superiority. They both loved her and pushed her to death. She quotes a Chinese joke, “‘If your child ever has a problem with a teacher or coach you always take the side of the teacher or coach.’ It’s kind of a joke but it’s only half a joke. Because you never complain. I was raised never challenging the system. If the teacher is unfair, you work 10 times as hard.”
The book itself studiously avoids veering into memoir and is, according to its authors, “actively not a how-to”. But let’s say we admire the spark of the triple package, the terrifyingly productive spirit, the spurring desire to achieve. How can we reproduce the immigrant psychology in children who are not second-generation immigrants? How can we avoid the complaisance and insipid materialism of texting teens? How can we raise anxious, driven, original kids?
For one thing, Chua and Rubenfeld are very critical of the self-esteem movement, which is to say the warm bath theory of parenting that espouses children feeling good about themselves no matter what. “You can’t raise your child saying, ‘You’re perfect, you’re amazing, everything you do is amazing,’ and give that person the drive to get somewhere,” Chua says. “Self-esteem has to be earned to be really internalised, in order for a child to have that unbreakable sense of superiority.” Her point is that if you praise your children for mediocre grades, for not scoring goals, for painting a blah painting, they know in their hearts that they have not succeeded, and you do not foster a real or enduring sense of achievement. According to this very intriguing logic, many of our efforts to protect or support our children are, in fact, crippling them.
What’s the alternative though? Chua calls it “grit parenting” and it involves instilling an ethic of work, of overcoming obstacles, of discipline. She points out that in many walks of life, not just business or law, even artistic ones, you need to be resilient, you need to work through rejections and setbacks. You can’t always call your mother to fix things. (A partner in a major consulting firm once told me he had a young man’s mother call to renegotiate his salary, which is, I guess, the exact opposite of “grit parenting”.)
It is hard to imagine a time when either Rubenfeld or Chua was not successful, not emanating a brisk goal-achieving energy. But after college Rubenfeld drifted to Juilliard to study acting for a while; he didn’t pursue it as he didn’t think he was good enough. Chua remembers a time that she took a standardised test in school and did so badly she was placed in a “non-college-bound” group. Her response to this humiliation was to memorise words so ardently that she became, well, what she became.
She studied maths at Harvard because her parents wanted her to be a doctor, and she hated it so much she switched to pre-law school. She was oppressed, badgered by “the triple package” and yet revelled in it, appreciated it. As Chua puts it, “What I like is turning being an outsider into a source of strength.”
Notably missing from their rigorous and intimidating definition of success is the minor question of happiness. Most people, I point out, would say that they only want their children to be happy, and Chua, in Battle Hymn, says just that. But what they seem to be measuring in The Triple Package is people who make money or are famous, people who strive and rise and are ambitious.
It’s true, though, that when people say they just want their children to be happy, they usually mean happy in a certain way, or according to certain ideas of a successful life. A naked schizophrenic in the street, singing, might be rapturously happy but that kind of happy is not what they mean. Most people, if they are honest, mean happy with an asterisk.
I ask them about someone who moves to Vermont, teaches second grade, has lots of children and dogs and is happy. They are quiet for a moment.
“That’s a non-triple package person,” Chua says.
“There are a host of good, decent people who are not ambitious, who are not climbing, who may have the best lives of all,” says Rubenfeld, who is gentler. “We are just not writing about those people.”
“Triple package people are not necessarily that good at happiness,” says Chua. “We wanted to be honest about the darker side of success. We wanted to uncover its psychological underpinnings, its particular pathologies.” And indeed the book is both a celebration of “the triple package” and an examination of its burdens; it tells the story of famous immigrants, such as the designer Phillip Lim, who are haunted by the feeling that nothing they do ever quite meets expectations. Someone asked him why he doesn’t invite his mother to his catwalk shows and he said, “You know, I think it comes back to that Asian cultural aspect where you are never good enough. You know what I mean? It’s like an ‘A’ is not good enough, you have to be an ‘A+’, and I have never felt good enough to receive her.”
Rubenfeld, who writes moody, highbrow, internationally bestselling mystery novels when he is not teaching, says, “The sense in my own life that nothing I do is good enough has been a source of real unhappiness for me but it’s also what drives me to write novels and books like this.”
I wonder about the writing process. I mention that for many married people writing a book together would be a strain.
“Did we mention we are divorcing?” Rubenfeld jokes.
I laugh. “Was it great? Fun? Horrible?”
“All of those things,” he says. “Great, fun, horrible.”
“It was fun!” says Chua.
They have very different personal styles: he’s quiet and thoughtful, she’s hummingbird vibrant and chatty and bold. “He moves slowly,” Chua says. “He thinks before he talks.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing!” I say.
“I think with loud music playing in the car,” Chua says. “Things tumble out. My own natural voice would be the wacky illogicality of Battle Hymn. Without him I would have a mess.”
In fact, of the two of them Rubenfeld is the provocative one, or the one more comfortable with provocation. Chua does not seek out controversy, and even with Battle Hymn, she was not consciously seeking out the battle; there is an intensity to her, a high-energy magnetism, that seems, well, tigerish, but in life, she says, “ I want to be liked. I am a diplomat. I smooth things over.”
However, weeks before publication the book has already been labelled a “racist argument” by The New York Post and Time, and other media, not to mention Twitter, echo that accusation. In fact, the book argues that for African-Americans, discrimination has been so entrenched in our institutions, it is harder to transcend than it is for other groups. Nowhere does it make the argument that there is anything innate in African-Americans that impedes the success of some segments of the population but, rather, that prejudice against them has been so deep that it is in a different category than that facing other groups. If looking around your world it seems that hard work won’t be rewarded, in other words, why bother?
Chua and Rubenfeld know that talking about cultural groups is a touchy business, that people will think they are stereotyping, because no matter how carefully you do it, the mere fact that you are speaking about them at all will blindly enrage people. Why do it when so many are bound to be offended? “The advantage of generalising,” Chua says, “is that you can see patterns, truths are revealed.”
I have a feeling that the talk of “success” will also irritate and provoke. However complex or subtle the analysis, certain readers will feel they are being ruthlessly labelled failures. They will feel an implicit brutality, a dismissal of the variety of successes, and the faltering of dreams, in the judgments of who is “successful”. By defining and pinning down success, you are also defining and pinning down “failure”, which will make people uncomfortable.
Towards the end of our conversation I confess that I feel a little daunted by the rigorousness of their definition of success. I have no savings. I write for a living. I have known myself to spend $600 on a pair of beautiful shoes to the slight detriment of the electric bill. If I took the marshmallow test, I am pretty sure I would fail it. (In fact, someone gave it to my three-year-old and I found myself rooting for him to fail it. I was thinking, “Take the marshmallow! Take the marshmallow”, because who knows if the world will still be there in five minutes.)
One thing that Rubenfeld and Chua do not seem to condone is “living in the moment”, which they call a “hollow” way to be. The idea of planning, seeing the outlines of the future, following a bigger picture, takes on for them an almost moral urgency. The joy of idling, of luxurious, wasted summer days, mornings whiled away in bed, seems not to be part of their vision of “triple package” success.
And yet, in a world in which people are immensely anxious about their children’s futures, these thorny questions of success do occupy our imaginations. We run our kids ragged with lessons, enriching them within an inch of their life, for fear they will slip through the middle-class standard of living in a harsh, new future that we envision but can’t quite understand. This is a cultural moment in which an unprecedented amount of energy is being poured into creating “successful” children and yet we seem often to be floundering and misguided in how precisely to do that. (I myself worry that one danger is creating “successful” young adults with no soul or self to inhabit that success, but that’s a whole other subject.)
Rubenfeld says, “People are going to think we are obsessed with Ivy League universities and income, and they are going to think we are obsessed with class.” Judging from the early reactions, one would have to add “race” to that list. But if they are obsessed with those things, they are interestingly obsessed, they are sensitively, intelligently obsessed, attuned to the ambiguities of those obsessions.
Of course, life and, more specifically, your offspring, have a way of surprising you no matter how carefully you plan. Rubenfeld and Chua’s elder daughter Sophia, now at Harvard, announced that she had joined the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on campus, and hopes to become an officer after graduating. They were stunned. “She found the one thing that it never once crossed our mind she would do,” says Chua. She had found the one path they could not have imagined their virtuoso piano player taking, and yet they are both proud and worried she’ll go somewhere dangerous, rising to the occasion and adapting as good parents do.
In the end they seem to know that it is the rogue surprise, the moment when the child breaks out and reaches for independence, when the “package”, whatever it is, falls away, that the fun, by which I mean the true or deepest success, begins.
‘The Triple Package: What Determines Success’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (Bloomsbury, £18.99, ebook £16.99). The authors will be discussing their book at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London W1 on February 27, 6.30pm; tickets available at bloomsbury.com/uk/event/chua-rubenfeld-event-riba/. Katie Roiphe’s latest book is ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (Canongate, £12.99)
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