Looking at success through education within different cultures.
For 21-year-old Priyanga Punneyalingam success was the only option. The law student and first-generation Australian comes from a Sri Lankan-Tamil background. Her journey to success began at the ripe age of four when she started being tutored seven days a week to supplement her schooling. Even so, Priyanga disappointed her ever-demanding father for the first time at age 12 by not being accepted into a selective high school.
“My father never forgave me. I was 12 but no matter how old you are, you can sense disappointment and shame and that’s all I saw in his eyes,” she said.
Somewhere in a parallel universe we meet 21-year-old Sacha Barbour. The writer and Anglo-Saxon Australian views education and success in a completely different light, as do her parents.
“My parents always took a relaxed approach to my education, allowing and supporting my decisions,” she said.
Both young women attended Strathfield Girls High School. Throughout their schooling each girl’s experience differed greatly as a result of exposure to their own culture. This, in turn, altered their perception of success.
Education has long been linked with culture, as it has with success. Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, recently published with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a new book called The Triple Package: how three unlikely traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America. They outline success as something that can be achieved only by embodying three key traits: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control, which they believe are determined by culture.
The couple examined how those principles relate to eight cultural groups in the US – Mormons, Jews, Cuban Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Nigerian Americans and Scientologists – focusing on their financial success.
Juliet Moore, a Sydney educational and developmental psychologist, couldn’t disagree more.
“They don’t know what they are talking about,” she told The Newsroom. “A superiority complex is an insecurity. Impulse control, that’s laughable. The Chinese are now the biggest addicts of alcohol, porn et cetera. The things that she names are not personality traits.”
However, Priyanga agrees with Chua and Rubenfeld. “I can confidently say that I possess all three of these characteristics… all of which have evidently grown since my high school education.”
Priyanga had no other option than success, which is why she relates to the argument Chua and Rubenfeld make. She believes the drive to succeed is an integral part of her culture – and that comes at a price.
“Pressure to succeed comes in all forms, but with Sri Lankan parents it’s draining and tiring,” she said. “They don’t appreciate sporting or musical talents … that’s not something you can make a future out of.”
For Priyanga, success at home came in one form only and that was educational excellence.
Things like love, health and happiness came second, with the ultimate goal being a career in medicine. In Priyanga’s mind, the only way to achieve those goals is to follow suit, adhering to the demands of her culture and community.
“There is no denying that my culture puts nearly 90 per cent of the pressure on me.”
As a result, Priyanga believes she epitomises the triple package Chua and Rubenfeld describe. She feels superior for achieving the school captaincy and for winning entry to a prestigious university.
Yet she struggles with insecurity and the colour of her skin, being a Sri Lankan girl in the midst of a white dominated course in an Asian dominated university. Her impulse control can be seen through immense dedication to achieving her goals.
So what about Sacha? If the Triple Package theory has any credibility it would surely define her, a media and communications student, as a failure.
But to anyone with a brain and heart she must surely come across as a success. She’s dedicated to her studies, balances a boyfriend and an awesome group of friends and still finds time to fit in her sporting commitments.
“My family always encouraged balance,” she says. “They would ask if I’d finished my study before I went out, but would never stop me. Dad has also kept me dedicated to karate for 14 years.”
Her parents have nourished her creativity and free spirit, encouraging her to follow the educational path that best reflects the person she is. Marks and financial gain were never the focus. They told her they would support her in whatever she chose to do.
To her the idea of possessing certain traits that determine your future is ridiculous.
“I don’t feel superior over anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t link that to being successful,” she explains.
Sacha also fails to understand how impulse control could directly result in success: “I don’t get delayed gratification. I’m terrible at that so I just do what I can when I can.”
Not adhering to the strict success formula in Chua and Rubenfeld’s book does not change the fact that Sacha is successful. She achieved the ATAR she wanted and was accepted into the university of her choice.
Priyanga, however, had to complete a three-year bridging course to undertake a law degree. In her culture’s eyes, that was failure.
The one thing that can be stated with any certainty is that different cultures perceive “success” differently and promote different ways of achieving it.
Juliet Moore implores us to remember that many Asian countries place heavier emphasis on teaching maths, while Europe emphasises languages and humanities.
“In Scandinavian counties they do not teach students to read or do maths until they are seven years old and they have the top literacy around the world by graduation,” she said.
“They are thinkers not rote learners. They are the philosophers and engineers.”
For many it would appear success is both a subjective and individual experience. For some it is a lifelong dedication to hard work and diligence. For others it is something they find through growth and exploration.
This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with the other, or to imply that certain cultures waste energy investing time and money into moulding their children. It is simply a reminder that we are all different. The manifold ways we learn and experience success is one of the things that make us as a society so interesting. – Brianna Hetherington
Photos provided by Priyanga and Sacha.