newyorker | Many reviewers have accused Chua and Rubenfeld of racism. In my experience of the book, that’s not fair: the idea isn’t that Asian-Americans, for example, are genetically predisposed to succeed, but that Asian immigrant culture encourages it. (In fact, Chua and Rubenfeld warn, drive fades with time, as immigrant cultures assimilate.) Still, the book is profoundly regressive—grandparentish, as it were—in the way in which it generalizes so freely about the inner lives of millions of people, always in a stereotypical way, while reducing the twists and turns of history to pop-psychological fate. My family, in proposing its wacky theory about the Chinese and the Jews, at least did so with a wink. But Chua and Rubenfeld are comically enamored of their idea and, like Mario with his hammer in Donkey Kong, they run around swinging their Triple Package at everything. Why do so many Nigerians earn doctorates? The Triple Package. Why did Bernie Madoff steal all that money? The Triple Package. (“At the extreme, the longing to rise can become desperate or monomaniacal.”) Why did the United States prosper so much during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? “America was for a long time the quintessential Triple Package nation.”
The fact that Chua and Rubenfeld can use the Triple Package to explain so much is a warning sign. It’s an idea so general that it can’t be contained. They want to declare the I-feel-special-but-also-inadequate part of the Triple Package the property of only a few select cultures. But, as Freud could have told you, pretty much everybody feels simultaneously special and inadequate. Lots of people, from all sorts of places, are pressured and judged by their parents, and end up slightly weird as a result. Chua and Rubenfeld point to America’s discourse of self-esteem and self-help, which, they write, encourages “embracing yourself as you are” and “feeling secure about yourself,” as evidence that non-immigrant Americans are relatively free of parent-induced neuroses. But that’s exactly the wrong conclusion to draw: if self-help is so pervasive, it’s because there are few feelings more common than insecurity. Fighting to realize or resist parental expectation is just part of the family experience.
Chua and Rubenfeld are drawn to psychological explanations because they can’t accept the idea that the third part of their Triple Package—”impulse control,” by which they basically mean working hard in school—could really be doing all the heavy lifting. Stuyvesant, one of New York’s most selective public high schools, uses a standardized admissions exam; last year, they write, the school admitted “nine black students, twenty-four Hispanics, a hundred seventy-seven whites and six hundred twenty Asians.” What, they ask, could possibly account for that outcome? Why didn’t all sorts of families, and not just Asian ones, send their kids to cram school to study for the Stuyvesant entrance exam? They regard the usual explanation, that Asian-Americans have an “education culture,” as circular. (Where does that “education culture” come from?) “The challenge is to delve deeper and discover the cultural roots of this behavior—to identify the fundamental cultural forces that underlie it,” they write. The Triple Package seems like a plausible candidate for such a force.
The thing is, though, that, often, cultures really are circular. All the time, communities judge their members by standards that are, on some level, arbitrary. In some families, what matters is military service. In others, it’s religious adherence. There are communities in which the family drama of aspiration and achievement is played out on the athletic field, with families spending evenings and weekends driving from game to game. To understand why a dad yells at his kid at Little League, you don’t have to point to a “fundamental cultural force” that makes him care so much about baseball. You just have to know that parents are very invested in their children, and that a community is a group of people who happen to care about the same things—sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes for no reason. Ask the Little League dad why sports are so important, and you’re likely to hear some hocus-pocus about the values of teamwork and good sportsmanship. The most accurate answer, probably, is “just because.”