In brief, the Triple Package of traits that are supposed to explain the success of communities like the Mormons, East Asians, and Jews, are Superiority, Insecurity, and Impulse Control.
An intrinsic belief in the superiority of one’s culture, a persistent worry over individual under-achievement, and the willingness to wait for future rewards seem to be, at first glance, reasonable indicators of success. Unfortunately, none of them holds up to even minor scrutiny—scrutiny by the authors themselves, because they begin undermining their arguments in the introductory chapter itself. Keeping your children insecure supposedly leads to a more driven social group, but insecurity is also the cause of deep dissatisfaction and rebellion. A belief in the superiority of one’s culture is supposed to give the ethnic group motivation, but several members of the very successful Jewish community point out that “their immigrant parents and many of their generation knew nothing of Jewish learning.”
The book also admits that the failure of many communities to thrive has nothing to do with the absence of Triple Package traits and everything to do with institutionalized discrimination and systematic exploitation. And, most important of all, the introduction questions the very meaning of the success that the Triple Package is supposed to achieve, acknowledging that the rewards are mostly material.
When the book explores each trait in depth, the reasoning gets even more convoluted. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that certain communities like the Mormons and Nigerian Americans have an inherent sense of cultural superiority that gives them an advantage. Yet here is a paragraph in the subsequent chapter on insecurity: “All of America’s disproportionately successful groups are strangely united in … [being] looked down upon in America, treated with derision, disrespect, or suspicion.” From this, one can infer that the existing dominant social groups in America feel a sense of superiority towards the immigrant class. So how is their sense of superiority not leading to successful outcomes?
The authors also reason that Indian Americans are successful because of a combination of a superiority complex and “ethnic anxiety.” As an Indian American, I find that argument hard to swallow, especially since the explanations for these are scattered and incoherent —the caste system is a source of both superiority and insecurity, and being under the yoke of the British colonial rule is supposed to have created “lingering resentment.” Racism faced by the early wave of immigrants is believed to be another source of anxiety and insecurity and a driver for the community’s success. Of course, all these arguments tend to break down when you analyze the success of the second generation of immigrants, who seem to be blazing new trails comfortably insulated from all the heartburn their parents went through. So how do the authors rationalize this? Why, these young Indian Americans must have constructed a new “superior culture narrative.”
The premise that traits to success are intrinsically cultural can also be easily debunked. If Indian American immigrants are wildly successful because the Triple Package traits exist in our culture, then why isn’t India wildly successful? Why have cultures that emphasize obedience, discipline and delayed gratification struggled to nurture creativity? Is a superiority complex the reason for the success of a community or derived from its success?
After the chapters on the individual traits, even the authors appear to give up on their arguments, because the rest of the book is about how other institutional factors play into the success of failure of communities and how focusing on Triple Package traits can break children’s spirits and lead them to “conventional, materialistic” pursuits. The authors reach the reluctant conclusion that “… the best thing about the Triple Package is maybe that it can empower people to break out of it” and “… calling for America to recover its Triple Package creates a paradox” because “America’s Triple Package will conflict with and tend to undercut the superiority complexes of its Triple Package groups.” It’s hard not to believe that the book was written purely on the basis of a catchy blurb.
Where this book succeeds is at placing a lot of data on immigrant communities at our fingertips. Want to know how many Indian Americans make over a $100,000 a year? How many top-paid CEOs are Jewish? What the median income of Iranian Americans is?
This is the book for you. I have to confess I speed read through all these statistics looking for a cogent argument and came to the conclusion that the examples are cherry-picked to suit the theory, and much of the reasoning is tautological.
Chua and Rubenfeld flounder so much because their premise itself is flawed. If I had to pick three traits that explained the success of certain communities they would be—Selection Bias, Education, and Networking. Immigrant communities are made of people who have left the home country for better opportunities, so they feature a predominantly higher survival instinct and drive than longtime residents of a developed country. (History is full of examples of complacent civilizations being conquered by hungrier invaders). These emigrating populations also have higher risk-taking propensities than the general populations in either country, which gives them a better shot at grabbing opportunity in their adopted home. This selection bias means that the likelihood of success in these populations is higher.
Secondly, immigrants who are well-educated tend to succeed more quickly than their less-educated compatriots, leading to a reinforcement of the importance of education in the community. This explains why the demand for after-school services by East Asians is much higher than the size of the population warrants, regardless of the education level of the parents.
Also, immigrant communities tend to be discriminated against when they first arrive, and this leads to a kind of tribalism that fosters networking, which is an underrated but key driver of success. These networks compensate for their small size by the strength of the bonds. I often joke that there are just six degrees of separation between me and any other Indian American, but there is more than a nugget of truth there.
Each of these traits is a catalyst for success by itself, and in combination these traits can create a multiplier effect that propels entire communities upwards.
The Triple Package of Selection Bias, Education, and Networking explain not just successes within the Indian American community, but other communities like the Jews and Mormons, where the intra-social bonds are strong and the communities are essentially composed of the hardiest survivors of discrimination and physical hardships.
Now where’s my million dollar advance?
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer who hosts the weekly radio show Safari Kids Quiz Show on KZDG 1550 AM. She also runs the community blog Water, No Ice and was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.