In this chapter, Gladwell explores the stereotype that Asian students are better at solving math problems than American students are. He credits this trend not to any inherent superior innate ability on the part of Asian students, but instead to two special elements of Asian culture. The first is the rice paddy. Rice farmers must be meticulous. They must attend to their fields every day: for building, for planting, for weeding, for harvesting. The work is tedious. They have to think constantly of the rice, weather, and growing conditions. By contrast, farms growing any other crop (such as those in the Western world) require planting at one time, maintenance at another, and harvesting at the end. The hard work comes in waves and is not continuous. There’s a fair amount of down time. This difference translates to the approaches the regions' respective students have to their work. Asian students come from a culture that works all the time. American and other Western students come from cultures that work in stages.
The other special element is the construction of Asian languages. Their number-naming systems are more streamlined and intuitive than the ones used by the English language and other Western languages. Chinese children and others can therefore learn the names faster, and as a result, learn how to count faster. Both of these cultural differences give Asian students advantages in math right away, without even considering how intelligent or adept the students are.