Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why orangutan moms are better than tiger moms

Orangutans are no tiger moms. Nu-nu with her 10-day-old infant in the Taipei zoo...... Photo by Shawn Thompson
We’ve heard a lot lately about the philosophy of tiger moms, which is the Chinese version of tough love for your child and not the sort of thing that the liberated westerner wants to hear.

Yale University law professor Amy Chua explains in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom that western parents have weakened their children by making them self-satisfied and indulgent under-achievers.

Is tiger mom Amy Chua right?
By contrast, the tiger mom cares for her children more deeply, in a more respectful way, through toughness and discipline, giving the child strength, confidence, aspirations and accomplishments. That, in turn, makes the child happier.

The fault, says Chua, lies in poorly adjusted western parents. Chua says in her uncompromisingly blunt way, “Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they are not disappointed about how their kids turned out.”

If ever there were a taboo that needed to be prodded and poked, it is what Chua is doing, criticizing  the already parentally insecure westerner where it hurts us the most. We know that differences in parenting styles are a big issue in a marriage that can inflame the tension between a couple and contribute to a divorce.

I have seen myself the same tensions in orangutan circles, where those caring for orphan orangutans clash over different styles of looking after "the kids," with tempers and outrage flaring in the same way.

But there is a part of me that understands the unpopular notions of Chua and that feels that westerners find it hard to listen to easterners because it puts us on the defensive about ourselves. It is a strange and different way of looking at life that challenges our basic notions of who we are.

Amy Chua and her daughters
I know what Chua is talking about and see some value in what she says. I see the difference in the attitude between my Chinese students and the western ones in the university courses that I teach. The westerners have been raised to value independence and self-esteem, and they question authority, which are important qualities that we should encourage. But sometimes the same qualities raise up the barriers of egos and create a battle with authority that gets in the way of learning. There are times when I wish the western students would accept more tiger in their teachers.

But how, as a teacher, do you decide what is right and natural in teaching your students?

As a parent, how do you decide what is right and natural in raising your children? There is so much advice and who really knows?

For an answer I turn to orangutan moms, who have been raising children for millions of years more than the Chinese tiger mom, longer even than we have been a species, and their rain forest children are happy and well adjusted. Orangutans become dysfunctional when human beings interfere with them by separating mother from child and putting them in a sterile environment.

Photo by Shawn Thompson
In the tropical rain forest, the orangutan mom spends eight years with one child teaching that child how to be an orangutan. Without that eight years with the mother, the orangutan becomes dysfunctional and does not know how to socialize, raise a child or survive properly in the jungle.

And orangutan moms are not tigers. (The predators have also disappeared from their forests in Borneo and Sumatra over time. where orangutans are the only Asian great ape.)

Orangutans are patient and gentle, probably more so than the average western parent. They rely on the initiative and curiosity of the child to learn, when the child wants to learn, at the pace the child wants to learn. The child is rewarded by its own curiosity and initiative.

And whether it is genetics or cultural, orangutans have an enormous natural curiosity and a strong desire to observe, learn and do new things. Their curiosity and initiative have not been damaged by the patience and gentleness of their mothers. That is something I find missing in my university students, who want the reward of marks for whatever they do. They basically want to be paid to learn. Such is the society we have created. Scientific studies have shown that the same result happens to the initiative of apes when they are rewarded for doing something. The material reward takes away the initiative to do the thing for its own sake.

It may be hard to believe that orangutans may have some stronger common abilities than we do, and it may be too humbling to human pride to consider that we could learn something from observing orangutans.

One of our limitations is that we think that orangutans are only a biological machine without choice and the ability to think and change as an individual, according to individual differences like us of personality, inclination, temperament and aptitude. We think they are merely dominated by biology. That is a convenient way for us to think and removes some of our sense of responsibility toward a fellow species.

But I saw a remarkable incident at the Taipei zoo that reminded me how much different orangutans are and how considerate they are as parents.

It was a cool, drizzly day in old Taipei. I was standing at the orangutan enclosure at the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Taipei Zoo. Beside me was a smart, intuitive and somewhat romantic keeper named Yang Chiang Lan.

Yang learns by watching orangutans intently and intuiting what they want and need, which is similar to the way he wooed his reptile keeper wife Chiu Zo Jing, even taking a job at the Taipei zoo because he knew she would want to work there someday.

Yang Chiang Lan in the Taipei zoo.... Photo by Shawn Thompson
It took sixteen years to woo his wife, but Yang is a persistent and patient human being, the qualities he also needs to succeed with orangutans, along with flexibility and a sense of humour.

On this drizzly day I made the morning rounds for three hours with Yang of cleaning the night cages and feeding the orangutans. Yang took the time to commune with the German shepherd dogs that protect the zoo animals from wild dogs. Then Yang had time to stand and talk by the orangutan enclosure.

Yang had put out huge banana leaves for the big male Ahyong because he thought the orangutan might be a bit angry that a visitor like me was monopolizing Yang's time that day and upsetting the regular schedule.

But what happened next was expected. We witnessed a rare and remarkable family drama.

The female orangutan Shouquaytow and her son Neanzer were released into the enclosure with the father of the child, Ahyong, after a month-long absence that apparently left the female in Shouquaytow pent up with desire.

The female orangutan Shouquaytow and her son Neanzer... Photo by Shawn Thompson
Shouquaytow was munching on a big banana leaf as she decided what she wanted to do next.

I was talking to Yang through a translator. I told the translator that I felt like an orangutan in Taiwan because I understood none of the words of the language and had to watch the body language and expressions of people to make sense of what was happening.

But we stopped talking when we realized what a miraculous and complex event was unfolding.

Yang squatted by the mesh totally absorbed. He said in all his years at the zoo he had never seen anything like this.

The female orangutan and her two-year-old son had begun vocalizing rapidly back and forth for a few minutes in some kind of intense conversation. They played with each other tenderly by their mouths and fingers.

The male drew closer because of the conversation and the female took the initiative in an obvious attempt to seduce him. She lay back and spread her legs while still holding the child.

Ahyong accepted the invitation without hesitation and dragged Shouquaytow to a quiet corner. He is touchy about being watched by human beings he doesn't know.

But the child didn't like this lovemaking and there was a three-way conversation between male, female and child. 

The child started slapping and pushing against the male, who was strong enough to overpower both female and child, but didn't. Instead of behaving "like an animal," he relented to the discomfort of the child, who was peeing profusely out of stress.

The male, to vent his frustration, went to a corner and pulled and banged on the fire hoses used for climbing.

Meanwhile, the female tried to soothe her child with tender play, but he continued to voice his displeasure.

But the adult orangutans had listened to the child.

The mother didn't get the sex she wanted; the male surrendered his chance for the satisfaction of a romp with a willing partner; and the child prevailed as the cold drizzle fell everywhere in Taipei that day.

The parents had listened to a child who had been raised with the gentleness and patience that an orangutan mother gives. It is a way that orangutans have spent millions of years perfecting without needing to unleash the tiger within.

Feel like more of a chimpanzee mom than an orangutan mom? Check out the poll on this blog site about which kind of ape best matches your personality.

My interviews at the Taipei Zoo were made possible by the kind assistance of Ming-Chieh Chao, the general curator of the animal department. 

I help Yang inside the Taipei zoo.

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