The 'Tiger Mom' Superiority Complex

A new book from Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld seeks to explain why some groups succeed in America, and some fail. But when does cultural pride cross over into racism?

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    Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica during a naturalization ceremony in Chicago last year.

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    When people dream of moving to America, it's not just so that they can be prudent, studious, restrained. My uncle Vipinmama would tell me a story about his parents, my grandparents, who had emigrated from Ahmedabad in India to Nairobi in the 1920s. All their lives, they denied themselves luxuries in the new country in order to store them for their retirement. They had rented a room in Ahmedabad, which they filled with refrigerators, washing machines, steel cupboards, juicers--all the goods and furnishings of life they abstained from in Nairobi. When they retired they were going to buy a house in Ahmedabad and stock it with their hoarded treasure.

    As the room in Ahmedabad bulged with the goods sent from Africa, the ranks of appliances waiting to be turned on one distant day, their lives in Nairobi continued in great simplicity and thrift. One day in her 50s, my grandmother had a heart attack and died--she "went off," as the Gujaratis say. My grandfather left Nairobi then and went to Ahmedabad and bought a house. But he could not bear to live in their dream without the one who was to share it. So within a month, he sold both the house and all the goods they had so patiently saved up, without ever having used them, and left for London.

    This had a powerful influence on Vipinmama, and he lived every day of his life in the pursuit of happiness. Every good bartender in Bombay, New York and Antwerp knew him. He played the guitar. He played cricket for his college. He went on vacation, even when it wasn't good for his business. He too went off, following a heart attack at 34 from congenital heart disease--but it was not after a life postponed. Whatever he purchased, he brought home and turned on immediately. If it was a stereo, he danced to its music; if it was a VCR, he invited all his friends over to watch movies that very evening. You might think my grandfather would have wanted my uncle to be more prudent, more restrained. But in fact, my grandfather was very proud of his son--prouder than any of the fabled Indians in the email he sent around--because his life was not spent deferring happiness, waiting for power.

    Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and teaches at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University

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