Tiger Mother fights back

Chinese-American law professor at Yale University, Amy Chua, also known as "Tiger Mom".

UNITED STATES - Amy Chua aka "Tiger Mother" is ducking readers' claws again. The Yale law professor made headlines in 2011 for her memoir of authoritarian parenting Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, and her new book, The Triple Package, written with husband Jed Rubenfeld, is being slammed as racist in early reviews.

The Triple Package, already out on Tuesday, looks at why some minority racial or religious groups in the United States, such as Jews, Asians, immigrant Africans or Mormons, deliver more CEOs or entrepreneurs or best-selling writers than the national average.

The authors put this down to three factors or a "triple package" which fuels a powerful drive to succeed: Members of these minorities have a sense of superiority instilled about the culture they inherit, a feeling of insecurity about their position in society and the ability to delay gratification and persevere in the face of tremendous odds.

A third of the 320-page volume is taken up by around 1,000 end-notes detailing how the authors arrived at their theories. However, the singling out of certain cultural groups has clearly touched a nerve in America, where race remains a hot-button issue.

In a telephone interview from her home in Connecticut, Chua, 52, says the book has been misunderstood. "It's horrible, it's like deja vu all over again. It's very upsetting. All these people talking about it and they haven't even seen it."

In a New York Post article last month, reviewer Maureen Callahan compared The Triple Package with Chua's best-selling 2011 memoir Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother and alleged that both books endorse the idea that some races are superior to others.

Of The Triple Package, she wrote: "It's a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes and it's meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people."

But Chua hits back at the article, saying: "This book is the opposite of what the New York Post says. This superiority thing, people are getting it so mixed up. We say that many groups have a sense of exceptionality but we never say some groups are superior. It's like the media blending these words, it's totally backward.

"Some groups are doing well now but it changes over time."

Listening in to part of the interview, Rubenfeld, 55, adds: "It's a fact that some groups are doing better in some ways. It can't be that we're not allowed to talk about this. We won't be able to understand the world and what it takes to survive in the modern economy if we don't talk about it."

In a commentary published in Time magazine, creator and chief blogger of the Careerist Vivia Chen said as much, saying that Chua's new book has made many people nervous because many Americans are uncomfortable about talking about race and success.

Some readers have made much of the fact that Chua and Rubenfeld are from the groups that their book says are most successful in America. Rubenfeld is Jewish. His late father was a psychologist and his mother an art critic. Rubenfeld is a professor at Yale Law School like his wife and also writes historical mysteries which are occasionally bestsellers.

The Triple Package arose from their conversations about how two people from such different backgrounds could end up roughly having the same career. "Jed was raised totally differently than I was. His parents were 1960s liberal, all 'pursue your passion'," says Chua, whose immigrant Chinese parents are her sternest critics. Her father was a professor of engineering at the University of California (Berkley) and her mother a housewife.

"Even now when I go give a book talk, everyone will say: 'You're amazing'. My mum will say: 'You were good, but you spoke a little fast'. She's the only one telling me the truth."

Four years ago, Chua was a little-known academician with two scholarly works to her credit, one on the great empires of the past, Day Of Empire (2007), and World On Fire (2002), which looked at countries where ethnic minorities were far wealthier than the average and how this could lead to conflict.

Then the strains of family life led her to pour her heart out about her parenting experience in late 2010.

"I wrote Tiger Mum in three months when my daughter rebelled, my sister got sick, she had leukaemia," she says, recalling how younger daughter Louisa threw a tantrum at a restaurant and forced her to rethink her parenting regimen.

Most readers ignore the book's long subtitle which she says put her authoritarian parenting methods in persepctive.

"This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old."

The culprit, she says, is a January 2011 extract published in the Wall Street Journal and titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

When the book finally came out, many readers tore it apart and accused her of cruelty and child abuse.

Among the examples cited by reviewers were that daughters Sophia and Louisa were not allowed to sleep over at friends' houses or get any grade less than an A.

Today, Louisa, 18, is applying to Ivy League Schools. Sophia, 21, is in Harvard, and maintains a "tiger cub" blog where she often states her affection for her parents.

"It just rebuts all these stereotypes that if you have strict parents, you become shy and robotic," says Chua. "I don't think it's so bad to have high expectations. My parents unconditionally loved me, a lot of Westerners just can't see that. By having high expectations of me, they said: 'You are amazing, you can do anything - you just haven't done it yet'."

As Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother hit the bestseller charts - selling close to 21,000 copies in Singapore alone - Time magazine published a cover story querying whether "tiger parenting" was responsible for the rise in Asia, academics began researching differences in parenting styles between Asian-Americans and other groups - studies mentioned in The Triple Package - while Chua found herself alternately being reviled in e-mail and becoming a celebrity at Chinese restaurants.

"It's very strange," she says with a laugh. "At school, if you ask students, I'm well known for being really supportive and nurturing. This reputation for being scary, controlling, to a lot of people who know me, it's a strange public persona."

Both Chua and Rubenfeld insist that The Triple Package is not a follow-up book, or a how-to or parenting guide. Yet they realise many readers might take it that way. "That's kind of what happened with Tiger Mum," says Chua. "It wasn't a how-to book but people said: 'Oh my God, she got her daughter into Harvard, what do I do?'"

Neither of them is too worried, since the book does point out the dangers of America's present culture of glorifying instant gratification rather than old-school perseverance.

Rubenfeld says: "One of the takeaway points is that in Western countries, we're going to have to find ways to reward good, old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. It's just become difficult for people to see that old-fashioned values like that will be rewarded."

Chua adds: "I think to say it's cultural or something any family can do should not be that controversial. It's not racial (sic) to say that certain groups right now are doing better than others. There's a knee-jerk reaction, people say: 'You're talking about groups, it's got to be stereotyping.' That's just silly.

"I just hope the book, after it gets read, will be less controversial. I think it'll be like Tiger Mum. A lot of people who were so angry at me after the Wall Street Journal headline, after they read the book, they said: 'This is totally different from what I thought'. So that's kind of what I'm hoping will happen now."

akshitan@sph.com.sg

The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld is available in bookstores now. It retails at $27 before GST.


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