The turning point comes about 20 minutes into our conversation.
“I also have this weird, dorky fantasy that someday I’m going to write a hybrid between ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones’—it’s like more erudite than ‘Game of Thrones’ and more reader-accessible than ‘Lord of the Rings’—but will assess different political and ethical viewpoints in the middle of the story.”
Sophia D. Chua-Rubenfeld’s voice trails off, and she lets out a smile. “I don’t know.”
Even for someone as multitalented as Chua-Rubenfeld, this dream represents a new dimension. Over the course of our hour-plus conversation, Chua-Rubenfeld covers an immensely diverse range of topics: her involvement with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics as a philosophy and Sanskrit joint concentrator; her blog about college life and posts about Tyga or rejection; even topics as personal as her concerns finding a husband while serving her post-graduation commitment to the military. She speaks quickly yet thoughtfully, interrupting many of her points with the word “sidetrack” to reorganize her thoughts.
Yet, despite all her talents and extracurricular interests, she is best known to many as the “tiger cub,” a label stemming from the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” written by her mother Amy Chua ’84. The book, which received national attention when it was published in 2011, chronicles stories from Chua-Rubenfeld’s youth as it describes a traditionally strict Chinese parenting method.
At the Visitas activities fair shortly after the book was published, Chua-Rubenfeld noticed a booth promoting Harvard’s ROTC program. Before then, Chua-Rubenfeld, whose parents are both law professors at Yale, had never considered army duty. “At the time I was having major, major angst,” she says. “Am I ever going to earn anything for myself again? Is there ever going to be merit in my life? Will everything be handed to me on a silver platter because of my parents?”
That fall, she showed up to her freshman dorm carrying army gear and camouflaged outfits. Now, she’s up at 5:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning going through drills and classes with other ROTC members from Boston-area colleges. She plans to attend law school after graduation and wants to practice law during her three-year commitment to the army, either prosecuting for the military commission or against sexual harassment. “I know I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I don’t serve my country in some way,” says Chua-Rubenfeld, whose grandparents lived in the Philippines under Japanese occupation in World War II. “This sounds so lofty and ridiculous, but I truly feel that if not for the U.S. military, I could not have the life that I have today.”
When I tell Chua-Rubenfeld I’m not familiar with philosophy or Sanskrit—her two concentrations—her eyes light up. She begins to describe three categories of Western philosophy. There’s metaphysics (what are people?), epistemology (how do we know things?), and moral philosophy (what’s the right thing to do?). To Chua-Rubenfeld, this last category—which doesn’t exist in the Indian categorization—is the most interesting.
“I realize that these people were so brilliant that it can’t be that they just never thought about what’s the right thing to do,” Chua-Rubenfeld shares. “I feel very strongly that for them it must’ve just been so clearly derived from their concept of personal identity and all these things that they didn’t need to write separate books about it.”
Eventually, the conversation turns toward her freshman year, where she was a celebrity of sorts before she even set foot on campus. Incoming freshmen wrote threads about her in the Harvard Facebook group for admitted students. A classmate performed a comedy sketch about her family during the Freshman Talent Show. Fans and commenters of her blog once overflowed her mailbox with letters, cookies, and care packages.
“Yeah, my freshman year was weird,” Chua-Rubenfeld laughs. “Basically, approaching it with humor and just acknowledging and convincing people I wasn’t scarred—like I swear to god I’m okay—[the attention] really died down.”
No longer does Chua-Rubenfeld choose to spend her nights reading Gawker comments to see what internet trolls have to say about her—not that she has the time. Her sights are set on the future: three years in law school, three years in the military, and who knows what comes next?
“I think it would be really cool to be a judge, especially as a jaded millennial seeing so much gridlock in the political sphere,” Chua-Rubenfeld says, her eyes focused on the Barker Café afternoon crowd. She takes a moment and smiles, as she looks back toward me. “But I’ve probably published too many radical blog posts to ever make that a possibility.”