I knew Amy Chua in passing while we were undergrads at Harvard. She was a typical Asian grind who barely stood out in either talent or looks. There were certainly no indications that she had a fetish for the difficult or Western Classical music - only a knack for craven careerism. She majored in Economics, which was a notoriously easy undergrad major at Harvard, certainly compared to, say, mathematics or physics or the classics. Economics, along with Folklore & Mythology or Psychology, were areas of concentration students chose when they were either strategizing their way to the highest possible GPA or trying to free up the maximum amount of time for golf or tennis.Hey, I know Ron Unz, too. Ron is a lot smarter than me, too.
Actually, Chua is a canonical example of regression to the mean: her father is a five sigma talent in the general population while she is a pitiful three. When measuring Amy Chua's "brilliance," one useful calibration point is Ron Unz — also a contemporary of Chua at Harvard, who I also knew in passing. Ron was Phi Beta Kappa, too, but won a Churchill Fellowship after pursuing a double major in Physics and the Classics. Moreover, he did original publishable work in both fields before getting his BA!
This assessment sounds harsh, but that coincides with Chua's own take on herself. (What she has is energy, personality, and fearlessness about offending other people.) From Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Thank goodness I'm a lucky person, because all my life I've made important decisions for the wrong reasons. I started off as an applied mathematics major at Harvard because I thought it would please my parents. I dropped it after my father, watching me struggling with a problem set over winter break, told me I was in over my head, saving me. But then I mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely sciencelike. I wrote my senior thesis on commuting patterns of two-earner families, a subject I found so boring I could never remember what my conclusion was. I went to law school, mainly because I didn't want to go to medical school. I did well at law school, by working psychotically hard. I did well at law school, by working psychotically hard. I even made it onto the highly competitive Harvard Law Review, where I met [future husband] Jed and became an executive editor. But I always worried that law really wasn't my calling. I didn't care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me.Â I also wasn't naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it. After graduating I went to a Wall Street law firm because it was the path of least resistance. I chose corporate practice because I didn't like litigation. I was actually decent at the job; long hours never bothered me, and I was good at understanding what the clients wanted and translating it into legal documents. But ... while everyone else was popping veins over the minutiae of some multibillion-dollar deal, I'd find my mind drifting to thoughts of dinner ... Jed, meanwhile, loved the law, and the contrast made my misfit all the more glaring. ... The next thing we knew he got a call from the dean of Yale Law School, and even though I was the one who always wanted to become an academic (I guess because my father was one), he got a job as a Yale law professor... It was a dream job for Jed. ...The person Amy Chua reminds me of is ... well ... me. (Although she has a lot more energy.)
I'd always thought of myself as someone imaginative with lots of ideas, but around Jed's colleagues, my brain turned to sludge. ...
That's when I decided to write an epic novel [about Chinese-American mother-daughter relationships spanning multiple generations]. Unfortunately, I had no talent for novel writing ... What's more Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jung Chang all beat me to it ... At first, I was bitter and resentful, but then I got over it and came up with a new idea. Combining my law degree with my own family's background (as Overseas Chinese in the Philippines), I would write about law and ethnicity in the developing world. Ethnicity was my favorite thing to talk about anyway.