1. Do you think that Indian-Americans have better family values than mainstream American culture?
2. When you were a child, did you think that if you didn’t excel in school you’d be letting down your parents and all the sacrifices they’d made for you?
3. When you were a teen, did your parents believe that your full-time job was to earn excellent grades and focus on all the things necessary for getting into a good college — forget about dating, partying past midnight, and this thing called the “prom.”
If you’re Indian-American and answered yes to these three questions, you probably grew up in a “Triple Package” culture.
In their book, The Triple Package, Amy Chua (of “Tiger Mom” fame) and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, lay out a fascinating explanation for why some groups in America have achieved outsized success. These groups have three traits that the authors call the “Triple Package”: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. The authors single out eight groups in America that they say embody Triple Package culture: Jews, Mormons, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, and Cubans.
The book presents a vast array of statistics and anecdotes to show that by various conventional metrics — household income, educational attainment, Nobel prizes, SAT scores, academic awards, and Ivy League presence — members of these eight groups have disproportionate success. Because I’m writing for The Aerogram, I’ll focus on what the book has to say about Indian-Americans.
Among the examples of Indian-American success, the book notes that of all the ethnic groups that the Census Bureau tracks, Indian-Americans have the highest median household income — $90,500 — compared with $51,200 for the United States as a You get the picture: Indian-Americans are doing awesome.whole. In fact, an eye-popping 44 percent of Indian-American households have incomes exceeding $100,000, compared with 21 percent for the entire country. Then there are the spelling bees. The winner and first two runner-ups of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2012 were Indian-American — the fifth year in a row that Indian-American children held the trophy aloft. (An Indian-American also won in 2013.) Of 141 U.S. Presidential Scholars in 2012, 48 were Asian-American, with the majority of those of Chinese or Indian heritage. And in Silicon Valley, Indians have started more start-ups than the next four immigrant groups combined (British, Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese). You get the picture: Indian-Americans are doing awesome.
So why have Indian-Americans done so well in America? Many point out that a lot of Indian immigrants are doctors, Ph.D. scientists, and engineers, so, duh, of course they and their kids would do well. Tiger Mom and husband, however, argue that something else is also at play, especially because Asian-Americans who aren’t highly educated — think taxi drivers and restaurant workers — have highly successful kids. That other factor at play is the Triple Package of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.
Do Indian-Americans really go around thinking they’re superior?Superiority complex!? That sounds so terrible, so uppity, so contrary to the American ideal of equality for all. Do Indian-Americans really go around thinking they’re superior? The answer is an awkward yes, if you temper superiority to mean something closer to “distinct, exceptional culture.”
The book argues that Indian immigrants brought one superiority complex with them, but are passing a new, different one to the second generation. The first superiority complex has its roots in India’s complex social stratification. The book states: “Although hard numbers are impossible to find, it’s widely agreed” that most Indian-Americans who are Hindu come from the religion’s three highest castes. In addition to caste being a source of superiority, a sense of superiority can also come from one’s regional subgroup. For example, Gujaratis take pride in being world-renowned in business acumen. And many Indian immigrants are graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology, a source of pride and prestige.
But the superiority complex that’s being passed down to the second generation is different. Distinctions based on caste and regional subgroup aren’t that significant to the second generation. I mean, how many Indian youngsters go around comparing what caste they are? As the book itself points out, “Many younger Indian Americans grow up rarely hearing caste mentioned in their families.”
“Instead,” the book states, “Indian Americans have constructed a new ‘superior culture’ narrative.” This “superior culture” “Indian Americans have constructed a new ‘superior culture’ narrative.”narrative centers on an unspoken sense of having a “distinctive and superior family/ethnic culture.” For example, the book cites a 2012 Pew study that found that nearly 70 percent of Indian-Americans think that the strength of family ties in India is better than in the United States.
And anyone who has grown up Indian-American has probably picked up on this sense of “Indians have better family values.” Divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, teen sex and drinking, abandoning elders in nursing homes, mediocre grades, and talking back to your parents are things that those “other Americans” do — things that just aren’t part of “Indian culture.” In other words, American culture is seen as loose and permissive, while Indian culture is, well, better. The book illustrates this sense by quoting a young South Asian who was interviewed for a social science study:
When I was growing up my parents thought I was a bad girl. I had good grades, but it was never good enough. I used to envy my (white American) friends; their parents were so nice to them. Like this one girl made brownies with drugs in it, and her mother only made her write a poem of atonement.
The “poem of atonement” is a bit out there by any group’s standard, but let’s face it: If you had to bet money on it, which mom would flip out more about drug-infused brownies — Indian or white?
In addition to a superiority complex coming from a sense of better family values, the book says that Indian-Americans’ superiority complex is sustained from a feedback loop of the group’s success:
It’s hard to find an Indian in the United States who doesn’t know at some level that Indian Americans are hypersuccessful — more successful than whites. As a result, the Indian American community has developed a strong, if unspoken, belief in their “distinctive and superior family/ethnic culture.” This sense of superiority, combined with persistent ethnic anxiety, is a classic Triple Package recipe for drive.
What is this “persistent ethnic anxiety”? It’s the second component of the Triple Package — insecurity. Because this concept is a bit more familiar to those who’ve had the immigrant experience, I won’t go into it in as much detail. Basically, Indian-Americans, like a lot of immigrant groups, have insecurity about facing scorn from larger American society, insecurity about surviving in a foreign, unfamiliar land, and insecurity about failing their families.
Insecurity about failing one’s parents and making their sacrifices all for naught is a powerful force driving academic success for many in the immigrant groups the book cites. The authors cite a Bangladeshi-American teen whose parents are a drugstore cashier and cab driver: “You try to make up for their hardships,” he told the New York Times. “It’s all about hard work.”
You see how your parents left behind their tight-knit families and came to the unfamiliar, cold, bland-food-filled country of America — all for you. Are you really going to screw things up and let them down?
The authors contrast this insecurity with the self-esteem that other American parents try to instill in their kids in the mistaken belief that self-esteem (being secure with yourself) leads to success. The authors state: “There’s an ocean of difference between … ‘You’re so amazing — Mommy and Daddy will always be here for you’ and ‘If you don’t get straight As, you’ll let down the whole family and end up a bum on the streets.’ Insecurity is not supposed to lead to success, but in America’s most successful groups, it seems to do just that.”
The last component of the Triple Package is impulse control — delayed gratification. For teens, that means no dating, no drinking, no sex. Instead, one’s single-minded focus would be studies and academically oriented extracurricular activities. As one young Indian-American quoted in the book says, “My parents were obsessed with our not being tainted by loose American values. … It was literally like they believed I should do nothing but study for twenty-two years but somehow be married by the age of twenty-five to a nice Indian man.”
Asian-American teens drink and do drugs at vastly lower rates that any other racial group, the book says. And Asian-American teen girls have babies at far lower rates than other groups (11 births per 1,000 Asian-American females ages 15 to 19, compared with 24 for whites, 52 for blacks, and 56 for Hispanics). The book states, “Because giving birth for teenage girls, and being convicted of a drug crime for teenage boys, are so highly correlated with adverse economic outcomes later, Asian Americans’ impulse control in these domains contributes to their disproportionate success.”
Maxing out credit cards is not something Indians do.And when it comes to other forms of impulse control, let’s face it, Indian-Americans like to be cheap and save money. Maxing out credit cards is not something Indians do. “Our culture is defined not by how much you spend — it’s by how much money you save. OK, that’s the way we are. That’s our culture,” says Indian-American comedian Rajiv Satyal in a stand-up routine posted on YouTube. He goes on to make several jokes about Indian-Americans’ penny-pinching ways, including one joke about how “we never ate out in restaurants unless my parents needed napkins.” The crowd roars with laughter after Satyal describes his parents’ formal dining room table — crowned with a stack of McDonald’s napkins on top of it. Most Indian-Americans can probably relate to such absurd lengths to be frugal — say, storage closets piled high with empty yogurt tubs and peanut butter jars that will never all be used.
Yes, many examples given in this article and this book are anecdotal, but the very fact that they resonate with so many Indian-Americans points to their truth. And they help put a mental picture on what would otherwise be dry statistics.
The Triple Package — a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control — seems to do a decent job at explaining the cultural factors that contribute to Indian-Americans’ outsized success in America. The Triple Package is controversial — who wants to be told they have a superiority complex? — but the Tiger Mom and her husband are on to something. Now, get back to work.
Preeti Aroon, a writer based in Washington, D.C., is copy chief at Foreign Policy magazine and tweets at @pjaroonFP.