We the American people can finally rejoice. As you may have heard, Amy Chua (aka Tiger Mom)'s new book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America is officially available. Finally, the lowly unsuccessful (by cultural upbringing) people can finally unlock the treasure of drive and determination and make it in America.
In the already sensational read, pot-stirring Chua and her co-author/co-parent/husband Jed Rubenfeld identify three qualities exuded by minority cultures that have led to their success in the US while also highlighting a handful of cultures and subcultures that supposedly prove their point.
This has caused a lot of accusations regarding race-baiting and racism and race-supremicism. But Chua and Rubenfeld are not wrong about how success can happen in America in immigrant and minority populations. I'm not here to make any group (but especially white people) feel better about themselves because the mean ol' Asian professor lady and her Jewish professor husband say they're not good enough. I am, however, concerned that by celebrating a narrow definition of success in America, Chua and Rubenfeld are propagating the shitty ideals that have led to so much failure in America.
For the record, Chua and Rubenfeld don't exactly say anything that is particularly controversial. Condescending? Yes, but not controversial. The three "unlikely traits" they highlight are (as quoted from the book's Amazon page):
- Americans are taught that everyone is equal, that no group is superior to another. But remarkably, all of America's most successful groups believe (even if they don't say so aloud) that they're exceptional, chosen, superior in some way.
- Americans are taught that self-esteem—feeling good about yourself—is the key to a successful life. But in all of America's most successful groups, people tend to feel insecure, inadequate, that they have to prove themselves.
- America today spreads a message of immediate gratification, living for the moment. But all of America's most successful groups cultivate heightened discipline and impulse control.
So, superiority, inferiority, and discipline. That's it, I think.
I can get down with discipline and impulse control (because that's how I was raised), but I'm calling bullshit on the first two points regarding the superiority and inferiority complexes. They are redundant—they simply highlight the fact that minorities are the minority (um, thanks for clarifying?). Let's recall the summary of that first point: "All of America's most successful groups believe (even if they don't say so aloud) that they're exceptional, chosen, superior in some way." Um, yeah. If a capitalist American definition of success guarantees that not everyone can be successful (there's got to be a bottom for there to be a top), of course the small percentage of successful people are going to feel special.
In terms of inferiority, it's not that minorities feel inferior, it's that we know we have to work much harder to gain recognition in America. Proving oneself is a fact of life for immigrants and minorities, successful and unsuccessful. Yes, it sucks, and it's a huge problem in America. It's how doctors who saved hundreds of lives in their home country wind up working at call centers or driving cabs. Chua and Rubenfeld's failure to mention the systematic oppression that prevents success is just ridiculous.
But I guess the part about The Triple Package that is most difficult to swallow is the privilege with which it was written. As Keli Goff at The Root explains, Chua and Rubenfeld's work is off-putting because of its limited scope and narrow definition of success:
"There is something extremely condescending about two people of privilege writing a book about how they "earned" their privilege, in part, by being privileged enough to grow up in the right kinds of communities, with, presumably, the right kinds of people. There is, as I see it, a fundamental flaw in Chua's argument. It seems that she and her husband define success in very limited ways."
I am happy for Chua and Rubenfeld, two incredibly successful individuals, but it gets my goat when people who have access and an understanding of how success in America works don't call out the system's failures or work to change it for the better. To wit, check out this useless Today show interview in which the duo exasperatedly wonder aloud why people are making such a big deal about the "cultural groups" aspect of their book—ANSWER: IT'S THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK—and then make sure everyone knows they're not racist because they highlight black subgroups too, you guys.
Inspired by Chua and Rubenfeld's new work, I present an alternative triple package: three benchmarks — by no means universal but based on my casual, personal observations as a first generation Sri Lankan American — for what I think it takes to be a "contender" in American society.
I think we can all agree that buying Skechers is not a very fashion-minded decision. Skechers are sort of like the Nickleback of shoes; they are incredibly successful and no one knows the fuck why, and people that buy them are in the unenviable position of justifying their purchase. Skechers is its own aesthetic. In the Great American Athletic Gear Race, they're not even on the playing field — and they don't care. But goddammit, they get the job done. They keep your bare feet from touching the ground, and they are comfy as hell. Most importantly, minorities swear by them.
When it comes to working a job when you're on your feet for 10+ hours whether in food service or the medical industry, your feet need some relief and so does your wallet. It's the ultimate act of not buying into America's almighty consumer culture, but rather, buying into a caricature of it. Skechers represent the sacrifice necessary to make it in America—clearly your eyes are on the prize if you're willing to win in a pair of Shape-Ups.
Life is different when grandparents live at home. Often, immigrant grandparents just join their children in their homes because 1) why waste money!? 2) that's kind of just how it is. Growing up, undergoing puberty, facing social pressures, leaving home for college — it's all a very different experience when there's a third generation in the house. It's difficult enough to grow up with the strict set of expectations set by some immigrant parents. Now imagine an extra set of expectations from Grandma (whose standards in my case were literally colonial). The pressure is kicked up a notch and, in turn, many sons and daughters work that much harder to meet expectations.
There is a certain idea of familial duty and respect that is instilled from the get go, being partially raised by, living with, and eventually taking care of grandparents. It's hard to have a big ego when giving an 80 year-old woman a bath and coming face to face with the future (location of your breasts).
Not too long ago, having bottled butter chicken, peanut sauce, or even soy sauce in a regular grocery store was completely unheard of. Guaranteed, in some places it still is. But we did it. The growing presence of minority cultures has made it to the board and now basmati rice is right next to the Uncle Ben's in many American grocery stores. It's the ultimate minority triumph. As far as the supermarket is concerned, your people aren't ethnic — they're just, like, people.
And it's the ultimate indication that minorities hardly gain acceptance or success on their own terms. It's about assimilating into a consumer-oriented American culture, like how people who have lost their mothertongue-infused accents are more likely to succeed.
For example, if you mention you're Hindu and people respond by talking about yoga, congratulations, your culture has made it in America. If you mention your culture to a white person, and they say, "OMG, I know the best hole-in-the-wall [insert your culture here] place," your culture has made it. But if there's one real indication of successful assimilation into white America, it's if people from your culture have been charged with white collar crime. If they were in deep enough to commit a CNBC-level crime, it still means they were in. Congrats, a member of your minority group has insider access to big, important things — that's definitely a mark of success in my opinion. You did it.
The Triple Package may teach people how to be successful in America, but it's only according to a definition of success based on privilege. Ironically enough, that definition is rooted in the same form of "success" that colonial-era European powers imposed on their territories. Which then led to the fall of many former colonies and forced people to seek better opportunities in America in the first goddamn place.
So thanks, but I'll stick to my own triple package.
Photos via ValeStock/Shutterstock.com.