Month: April 2014

Book I’m Reading Now: Amy Chua’s “The Triple Package”

Note: This isn’t meant as a review per se, more of my annoyance with many arguments the authors’ make in the (ultimately flawed) book.

 

First off, how does one even define “success”? Chua and Rubenfeld promise to use only conclusions supported by data. As such, they bring up measures like the SAT, how many members of a certain ethnic group are in charge of Fortune 500 companies, and other things.

 

But here’s the problem – those are inherently unobjective metrics! The SAT isn’t a static test that objectively tests your academic success – if you have the money to take SAT classes or get tutoring, your score is bound to improve. SAT scores are as more a function of wealth than academic success/intelligence.

 

Chua cites Mormons in the Fortune 500 as another success story. “Before 1970, there appear to have been no Mormon senior executives in any Fortune 500 company. Since 1990, there have been fourteen, including twelve CEOs, one president, and one CFO.” Mormons make up 2% of the US population. Even if all the Mormon CEOs were CEOs of their respective companies at the same time, they’d make up a mere 2.8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, barely exceeding their own demographic proportions.

 

With this rationale and logic, Chua could say that men are innately superior to women because 95.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men, exceeding their demographics by almost 200%! Which is of course, a patently ridiculous argument. Perhaps the real reason that there were no Mormons in the top elite before 1970 was due to religious discrimination and pervading stereotypes of Mormons – not necessarily any innate cultural superiority?

 

I haven’t even touched the three elemental parts of “The Triple Package” yet. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that cultures which have 1) an superiority complex, 2) insecurity, and 3) impulse control are those cultures that have “The Triple Package” and are uniquely suited for success. They argue that these elements are a “counter to modern American culture” and these groups as outsiders succeed because of these traits.

 

I can’t argue too much against 3), impulse control because there’s a lot of research for and against the Stanford marshmallow study and its ramifications (that children who are able to delay gratification do better in life). That’s a hotly-debated issue in and of itself (Chua herself mentions it on pg. 179 as an example).

 

I’d like to specifically examine the first element, the superiority complex. She notes that these groups share “a deeply internalized belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority.” She specifically cites Chinese and Persian immigrants as cultures whose belief in their own superiority is “rooted in a story about the magnificence of [their]… history and civilization”.

 

I’m not Persian, so I can’t speak to the superiority complex (if any) of the culture that gave us Zarathustra and Ferdowsi.But I can speak to Chinese culture, as a lover of Chinese history and its classics. Interestingly enough, I am of the same cultural milieu that Amy Chua is part of – Southeast Asian Chinese (Philippines for her, Malaysia for me). Chua’s primary writing on Chinese culture comes in her chapter “Impulse Control”, and that’s where her argument and her basic facts falls apart to anyone who has taken even a basic course in Chinese and East Asian history.

 

She calls Japan historically a “vassal state” of China (in a long list of examples about how Chinese supposedly think everybody ripped off their culture). This is wrong. Prince Shotoku sent Emperor Yang of Sui a letter in 607 that was signed “東天皇敬白西皇帝” – the emperor of the East (tennō) send his respects to the emperor of the West (huangdi) – it’s clear even then that the Japanese government saw itself on an equal footing with China. Japan was never part of the official vassal-state system of imperial China, either.

 

She further notes how Chinese supposedly are taught how amazing and wondrous their civilization has been; that it is the originator of everything. That history and culture alone serves as an uplifting guiding star for every young Chinese-American (but seriously, less than a quarter of Chinese-Americans I’ve met can even name the last imperial dynasty of China). It completely neglects the fact that during the late years of the Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic, Chinese history was seen as a liability – not a source of strength. Mao Zedong sponsored the 批林批孔运动 (Anti-Lin [Biao], Anti-Confucius Campaign), and exhortations were made to remove the “dust” and the “poisons” of the “old society” (舊社會), for only then could China be strong. Even noted Chinese intellectuals like Qian Xuantong declared that “without the abolishment of Chinese characters, China is doomed” (漢字不除,中國必亡) and supported instituting Esperanto as a second language for Chinese. Hu Yuzhi was convinced that Esperanto was the solution to “Chinese isolation” – in fact, the Chinese language itself was a liability! Clearly, intellectuals and policy makers of China less than a century ago were ashamed of Chinese culture – some saw it as their greatest weakness, not their strength. The resurgence of adoration for Chinese culture is a fairly recent phenomenon in modern times, not a long-held belief.

 

I wish I could write more, but it’s getting late. Suffice to say that Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s “The Triple Package” is the classic example of a book that overreaches. It claims to find a defining theory about success without identifying what success actually is. It ignores the role of the civil rights movement in bettering the lives of recent immigrants vs. older ones (their citation of Nigerian immigrants, for example), and the self-selecting role of immigrants who arrive with high academic and business credentials vs. those that don’t.