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Why Asians Are So Successful in America

Updated on June 2, 2017

Indian American Ananya Vinay won the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Asian Americans are often over-represented as winners or finalists in academic competitions. What exactly makes Asian Americans so successful? Suketu Mehta starts off his Time Magazine article The 'Tiger Mom' Superiority Complex with this email he received from his grandfather:

"Take a Pride--Being an Indian. 38% of Doctors in U.S.A. are Indians. 36% of NASA employees are Indians. 34% of MICROSOFT employees are Indians. India invented the Number System. Decimal Point was also invented by India. Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software ..."

Mehta takes offense at this kind of cultural superiority. His article is a criticism of the book The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld.

According to The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America culture explains Asian American exceptionalism. The three traits the book claims are responsible for increased success are a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. According to the authors, America used to have these 3 traits but they've been lost for the following reasons:

  • Americans are taught that everyone is equal, that no group is superior to another but America's most successful groups do indeed believe they are superior
  • Americans put a lot of emphasis on self esteem but America’s most successful ethnic groups feel insecure and are therefore always trying to prove themselves.
  • America promotes instant gratification while successful ethnic groups promote discipline and self control

I can't help being very skeptical of this. Anyone who has ever heard members of the radical Muslim underclass in the UK would realize they actually possess all three traits. They think they and their religion are superior. They definitely don't promote self esteem and they believe they're an oppressed minority. They also despise the culture around them that engages in instant gratification and living for the moment. So, why are they an underclass? I'm sure these traits could be found in many economically struggling groups.

Education and Entrepreneurial Skills

Suketu Mehta thinks Asian success has nothing to do with cultural superiority. He attributes Asian success to their higher levels of education or business skills. Many Indian immigrants to the United States come from the country's wealthy and highly educated elite.

"The groups Chua and Rubenfeld and the other new racialists typically pick out as success stories are almost without fail examples of self-selection. Forty-two percent of Indians in the U.S. ages 25 and older have a postgraduate degree. But only about 20% of those they've left behind in the motherland even graduate from high school, and 26% of the population is illiterate. It's the same with Nigerians: the ones who are here represent a vastly richer and better-educated subset of the country's population as a whole."

The working poor of India rarely immigrate to America because they can't afford to
The working poor of India rarely immigrate to America because they can't afford to

Or they may have been business owners or the children of business people meaning they bring entrepreneurial skills. Compare this to Mexicans immigrants who largely come from the poorest segments of society with perhaps nothing more than menial or subsistence farming skills and little formal education. According to Steve Trejo from the University of Texas at Austin.

"A lot of the immigrants who initially came from Cuba in the 1960s were professionals; doctors, lawyers, highly-educated people who were fleeing Castro and the changes that were occurring in Cuba. And so, that was a very skilled group and they got lots of help from the U.S. government when they arrived. And their children are doing great. You know, second and third generation Cuban-Americans have higher education levels than the average white American. But Cubans are kind of the exception among the Latino groups."

Mehta also points out that ethnic groups often stick together. An Indian, Iranian or Jew who comes to America will often have a successful community to look out for them and provide them with opportunities. Mexicans also have a community that will look out for them but for the most part it isn't a successful one.

Impulse control is somewhat meaningless when it comes to success as well. Of course, choosing to study rather than party will increase the odds of succeeding academically. However, Chua say Mormons are more successful because they:

"are less likely to have sexual intercourse, consume alcohol, smoke pot, or watch X-rated films than teenagers of any other faith."

Utah actually has the highest online porn subscription rate in the United States, so it's unlikely they're watching less X-rated material. Religious people may also be more likely to lie on surveys about sexual behavior, so we can't say for certain they're having less sex. However, can we really say less drinking, smoking or sex is somehow the reason for increased success? After all, this would likely apply to conservative protestants as well. However, conservative protestant youth have lower levels of educational attainment and lower incomes than their more liberal peers. Mehta brings up a more likely reason:

"The authors overlook one small point about Mormons, however: they have their own state. Eighty percent of the Utah legislature is Mormon; its entire congressional delegation is Mormon. Utah has had only three non-Mormon governors in its history. This translates to tremendous political and financial clout for the religion, which is an indispensable part of Mormon business success."

Mormons put a lot of emphasis on education and success. This, rather than impulse control, is a more likely factor in achievement. Among Asians I know, how kids are raised seems to have to have little impact on success. Parents who are lenient when it comes to TV watching, video games, dating and other kinds of instant gratification are still sending their kids off to Ivy League schools and those kids are graduating and entering high paying careers. High expectations, educated parents and a supportive environment seem to be enough to ensure success.

Asians have another big advantage when it comes to success in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. Asian countries typically do a much better job when it comes to teaching math than American schools do. They bring their superior math skills with them. They pass that superior math knowledge onto their kids. American parents who struggle with math themselves are less likely to raise kids who are good at math. Most Americans don't have the necessary math skills to enter STEM careers, which means large numbers of high paying jobs are available for talented immigrants to fill.

Asian countries often do a much better job teaching math
Asian countries often do a much better job teaching math

Success Breeds Success

Educated parents tend to produce educated children. Entrepreneurial parents tend to produce entrepreneurial children. Groups that have education or business skills in abundance will usually be more successful than does who don't. They'll be able to provide their own kids with better opportunities. Elites produce more elites. A superiority complex, not having self esteem or avoiding porn and weed aren't going to contribute to success on their own. My husband is Asian and I've seen firsthand what Suketu Mehta refers to. I haven't seen much of what Chua is promoting.

I was once approached in the back-to-school section of a store by a mom who was looking for a one inch binder for her child. She couldn't tell the difference between the different size binders. Even if this mom puts a huge amount of emphasis on academic achievement can she realistically raise a child who can excel in math the way the child of an Indian engineer or doctor can? It's possible but unlikely. She definitely won't be able to send her kids to the best schools like they can. Sure, expecting academic excellence and hard work from her kids may increase their chances for success but the odds are still against them.

My sister teaches in an inner city school. She told me many low income parents do care a lot about education. Many of the kids really do want to learn. But the minority of students who come from abusive, dysfunctional homes or who have serious learning disabilities make learning almost impossible for everyone. The immigrant kids who manage to somehow succeed in these troubled schools often have parents who've received a good education in their home country, and can therefore make up for the many inadequacies of America's public schools. A low income parent who cares about their kids' education but who has nothing more than 3rd grade reading skills may not be able to do that.

Chua and Rosenfeld overlook the many barriers those who lack money, business skills and education face when it comes to trying to give their kids a better life.


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    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)

      Article is fine. Asian immigrants thrived in US , because basic things like education, entrepreneurship, and most important is CONSTRUCTIVE SPIRIT.

      They assimilated easily in melting pot and strengthen economy.

      Labor dignity is the strong point of US and there are aristocrats in America as i heard.

      In India we have problems in governance due feudal communities and rulers. They offer freebies and largesse in election.populism is more important than development of the country.

      To my knowledge Americans are not feudal, they respect merit and that is the reason Indian techies migrate to America.

      Thank you sir.


    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California


      American textbooks are not only less rigorous but they're very badly written. Math education is especially bad, which puts the US at a major disadvantage with STEM jobs becoming increasingly important. The whole American educational system desperately needs an overhaul.

    • jtrader profile image


      5 years ago

      I think you've made a lot of interesting points. Having taught in the school system in Asia and in other parts of the world, I think that several of your points are valid.

      Quite frankly, I think the American elementary school system has deteriorated. I am not American but even as a child, we noticed that the books that children our own age studied in America were not as rigorous as those we had.

      I think that America must invest more in her teachers. Laying off teachers is not the way to go. Kids with a poor foundation will not be able to do well as adults. Many countries across the world have a better educaiton system than America and produce stronger lifelong learners who are driven to succeed as a result.

      Voted up and interesting!


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