Being a parent means always worrying about your kid, at least that is what people with kids always say. These worries take different forms but an overriding one once children hit school-age seems to be a gnawing anxiety that they are falling behind, not only classmates in the neighborhood but kids from around the world, especially ones who complete calculus problems as they walk to sports events in blizzards. If Chinese kids are kicking are butt at integrating functions in inclement weather, then, at least according to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, America is pretty much finished.
Well aware of these worries, three years ago Amy Chua, professor at Yale Law School, exhorted American parents to cast off their coddling ways and adopt the more disciplined dictates of moms from East Asia. The list of her rules—no sleep over’s or grades below an A (except in gym)—created a predictable amount of controversy that both fed and dovetailed nicely with the general sentiment of American declinism in the years after the Great Recession. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was a well-timed book.
The new effort by Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, also a professor at Yale Law School, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, addresses a similar but ultimately more expansive and more sensitive topic: Why do some cultural groups consistently achieve education and financial success and others consistently don’t? To answer their own question, they provide The Triple Package, an innate “superiority complex,” along with a general attitude of “insecurity” and, importantly, “impulse control.”
A review in Time thought the book’s thesis might drift into “new racism.” Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker, concluded that Chua’s and Rubenfeld book “is more of a performative self-interpretation than a sociological argument.” Rothman thinks that aspect of the book makes it, ironically, very American. After all, what is more American that “feeling secure about yourself” and “embracing yourself as you are”? In a cogent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy (and fellow Fulbrighter), proposes his own triple package that differs from Chua and Rubenfeld’s: Confucian reverence for education, filial piety, truncated childhoods. Asma’s closes his essay in a subtly provocative way, observing that the “next generation of wealthy Chinese may not be as hungry for success as the previous population.” Already evident, this develop manifests itself with some mainland Chinese kids “starting to study art (gasp!) instead of engineering.”
This last point is important and needs further development. The flaw with Chua’s set of books, Battle Hymn and Triple Package, is not any overt racism but a general belief in the static nature of East Asian, particularly Chinese, society. Education is valued because it is always valued; parents are tough on their kids because parents are always tough on their parents. It ignores that fact that East Asian societies are filled with lots of different types of people with lots of different parenting philosophies that don’t necessarily adhere to the tiger parenting prescriptions. The popular discourse of the past year confirms this point.
Take, for example, the tuhao (土豪), or, more properly, the offspring of the tuhao. We can also expand it to any fuerdai, the children of the wealthy or guanerdai, the children of officials. Tuhao, once a term to criticize landlords in the 1950s, now means someone with a vast amount of money who is not afraid to spend and show it off. Children of these groups appear more American than Americans: they attend school in the U.S., drive nice cars and go to the Caribbean for Spring Break. Their sense of superiority comes not from an innate cultural sense but from baser forces: money, power and connections. At U.S. universities, they also help create a moral economy. Use the look around feature of Weixin or Moumou at a large American university and you are likely to find people advertising essay-writing services and other academic shortcuts. In China, look to at the “Tuhao behaving badly” genre of stories, whether it is catch phrase of “My dad is Li Gang” or last summer’s court case involving Li Tianyi. It is difficult to find any impulse control in this group.
Think about, also, the recent popularity of the show “Dad, Where are we going” (爸爸去哪儿). Beyond the “Kids say the darndest things” aspect of the program, the show added to an ongoing dialogue among young parents in China about gender roles and how best to raise their kids. The fashion model Zhang Liang, said time and again that he wanted to have a buddy-buddy relationship with his son, Tian Tian. Even the most conservative of the father in the group, the actor Guo Tao, realized that he needed to change his ways and become a little warmer with his son, Shi Tou. Tiger Parents, it turns out, might just be paper tigers.
How China and East Asia changed in the last several decades and how it continues to do so is an incredibly interesting and important topic. The best scholarship and journalism usually tries to capture these changes in the ordinary experiences of individuals, the choices they make and the lives they lead. The most frustrating analysis contents itself to theorize and maintains a confident, all-knowing voice.
Interestingly, the discussion surrounding Chua and Rubenfeld’s work has a similar tenor and tone to debates about The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington. Both use cultural and civilizational similarities to offer grand explanations for past, present and future. Huntington held that the conflicts of the future would develop from cultural, not ideological, differences. Chua and Rosenfeld believe that a person’s success in the future spring from specific cultural traits. Both attracted harsh criticism. Literary theorists Edward Said condemned Huntington’s thesis as “the purest invidious racism.” That sounds familiar. Both authors, too, fed fears. Huntington wanted to show how the world was still a dangerous place despite the failure of various twentieth-century ideologies to unseat capitalism. Chua wants to reveal the inadequacies of American parenting philosophies so that parents can worry even more about the choices the make in raising their kids.
Both authors, also, don’t give enough attention to the varied, complex and changing choices of individuals in the civilizations they describe.