MONDAY, 8 DECEMBER 2003
A thought started brewing in my head somewhere in the first part of October. I could claim that I’ve thought of nothing other than of this egg waiting cosily in its nest since then, but the truth is that this idea is one of those that hatch in phases. I’m only now, in the first part of December, ready to tap the other end of the egg in the hope that the whole truth will finally come screaming out of its shell.
My question last time around was: do I still keep, in the back of my mind, a familiar template regarding my future? I have already to a large extent written what I had wanted to say, and I am running the risk of simply regurgitating the same politics, to once again dish it up as something new I just needed to add.
I’ve been meaning for quite some time now to wrap up this unpublishable collection of pieces, stuff all my cash in a small plastic bag and head back to South Africa. Having arrived, I’ll do this and that, print name cards that state who I am, why I want to spend my time in that particular town, and how I reckon I fit into the community – in terms that my fellow townspeople will understand. Within a few weeks, I’ll be a local resident recognized and greeted warmly every Saturday afternoon when I go to the local golf course to collect old balls from the rough to sell for bread and tobacco.
Long before I shall start missing Taiwanese women and deep-fried octopus, I will sit down to dinner with the daughter of one of the town’s most prominent leftists. Shortly thereafter she will be most delighted that someone like me will want to get married to her, since she can only play five operas on the piano, often loses her temper for social injustice, and her mother has always said she’s way too smart to ever find a decent man and has much too keen a sense of humour to ever be taken seriously by any serious-minded poet or wealthy engineer.
And so my life will continue according to the conventional model. The in-laws will sometimes feel compelled to make excuses about my so-called lost decade, when “he went to the Far East to teach English and write and so on”. I will, however, be where most citizens of the Middle Cosmos once only dreamed they would end up – married, home, work, kids, lawn mower …
I know I make myself guilty of stereotypes. I know life in the middle stratum of society is no Scout camp or Sunday school picnic. I know all people, middle class or not, desire a proper roof over their heads. I know everyone tries their best to scrape together enough money each month to keep their souls contained within their skins. And I understand, to hold your own child in your arms changes how you view things, in ways you would never have guessed.
Still I wonder: is the dream of a middle class existence necessarily destined for every adult person in the developed world? What, to ask the inevitable follow-up question, are the alternative models of a successful, happy, fulfilling adult life?
One difficulty in answering this question is the definition of a middle class existence. There are also factors that make an answer different for different people – social reality, cultural expectations, and perceptions of what it means to be a successful adult, all play a role. Since this is not academic material and because I am not in a position to write about anybody else’s life, once again the axe splits the stump at my own front door. What then, would be the alternative for me, or at least for someone in my position? I am 32 years old; I own no property and I don’t even have a car; the few pieces of furniture I call my own, fill up an apartment in Northeast Asia; I have the equivalent of a few thousand rand in the bank; I believe credit cards are somewhat diabolical; I have no documentation of a fixed income with which I can convince a bank manager to give me a home loan; I have a stubborn tendency that drives me to write what I want to write regardless of whether or not it can be published, even when I should, in all honesty, be taking steps to earn more money. What are my options if I do not qualify for the standard ideal of a middle-class family man? What are my options if conservative, middle-class criteria of what an “adult” ought to be doing with his life – as espoused by my own parents, my sisters, and friends whom I regard for various reasons as important – freely swing above my head?
TUESDAY, 9 DECEMBER 2003
To get married and have children is more than just a lifestyle choice – it is, and probably has always been, across all cultural divides and historical periods, the primary requirement to qualify as a full-fledged adult member of the community.
Obviously no one doubts your ability to make choices and take responsibility for your own actions if you are older than 21, and even more so if you have already reached the Big Three. But it’s one of those cases where people will say, “Yes, you’re old enough to join the conversation, but …,” and then they don’t know how to complete the sentence.
A friend recently asked me – unaware that it is also one of my current pet issues, when I think one’s parents regard you as an adult, as a fully matured “one of us”. My question is: when do not only your parents, but the wider community regard you as an adult one of them? A preliminary answer has already been offered – marriage and children (and if you qualify for a loan, you can add purchasing your first residential property).
Which brings us back to my question of last night: Let’s say marriage-and-children is not your choice, or it just doesn’t work out for you, then what? Will you get treated as a second-class adult until you’re eighty? Will adults who do qualify to be considered as such according to the above criteria become annoyed if you want to raise an opinion on “adult issues” such as children and the educational process? Will they cut you short with a “You don’t know because … you just don’t know”? (Incidentally, the three things – buying property, getting married, and having children – are regularly mentioned in one breath as milestones that qualify one as an adult. But even if you don’t own property, even if you are divorced or have never been married, what truly matters is whether you know the responsibility of taking care of your own child. This, more than anything else, is the Golden Unwritten Requirement.)
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule; people who never produce and/or raise their own children who are well respected as full-fledged adults. The best examples I can think of is the Catholic Pope and the majority of Catholic priests. This group is, in fact, respected because they voluntarily relinquish the joy (and responsibility) of their own children so they may serve the Church and their faith community according to their doctrines. Same goes for the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks. One could almost say that full-time members of these religious communities and other similar communities have special waivers that allow them to be treated as full-fledged adults without having satisfied conventional qualifications for proper adulthood.
What about other adults who fall outside the conventional criteria? Where do the adults fit in who find themselves in mental institutions or those who sleep on the streets and are labelled as “homeless bums”? Nobody seriously expects adults in mental institutions to act or to function as adults (some are possibly even locked up in the fear that they do conceive children), and homeless people are in general not deemed good enough for any anything other than maybe a few coins and a short sermon in the parking lot. But do they nevertheless still fit in, in a way, as adult members of society? They are not quite treated as children, and in some cases are expected to take responsibility for their actions, so … shall we settle it for the moment by calling them “semi-adults”?
To come back to my particular situation: If I were a homeless, mentally unstable priest calling myself “Pope”, I would have fallen in the semi-adult category, although I could still have claimed exemption from conventional qualifications because of my priesthood. But because I’m not mentally unstable, homeless, a priest or a monk, and because I also do not have children, I find myself in a special group: unmarried, single, working adults who according to the standards espoused by many do not qualify for full adult status.
Does it bother me? It annoys more than it bothers. I consider myself a full-fledged adult, but if the requirements of children and possibly property are taken into account, I am not necessarily going to be treated as a full-fledged adult by people who do meet these requirements.
I can throw this whole debate over to the other side and say that there are many adults who can write “Parent” on their identity cards, but who I would regard as … shall we just say, underdeveloped by my own measure of adult opinions and conduct.
Now that I think about it, shouldn’t there be something like a credit system? Should one not receive credit for well-worked out opinions about mature issues that are relevant to all adults; credit that will make up for the lack of credit others receive for intimate firsthand knowledge of parenting, even though they may not have so many well developed opinions on other relevant matters? The answer is probably negative. Parent-adults have the broad community on their side. Fair and well if you have worked out your version of the meaning of life and issues of identity and the role of belonging in one’s life, and if you’re able to express these things in mature vocabulary worthy of a full-fledged adult; what matters, though, is whether you have children or not.
How will it change my opinion if I do one day hold my own child in my arms? I would like to say that my opinion will not change. It will still annoy me when someone believes that I can now participate in the conversation when it comes to children, “because you are now a father, yourself”. A person is a full-fledged adult because they have reached a mature age, because they know how to function as an adult, and because they take responsibility for their own actions in the community in which they find themselves. I do not need children of my own to be defined as an adult, and I do not need children of my own to express an opinion on the subject of raising children.
(Are there people who, consciously or unconsciously, are motivated to have children just so that they can qualify as “real” adults in their community? I believe there are.)
This piece has made a few turns I had not originally considered. (I don’t actually plan my writing anyway. I mostly write what I would otherwise have been telling myself out loud, wait for a title to present itself and call the end result “a piece”). I think I originally wanted to know if I only have one option for the future, namely to go back to South Africa, earn money, buy a house, get married and have children.
I still wanted to mention alternatives at some point, like the guy who lives in Hong Kong for twenty years, who can speak fluent Chinese, travel a lot each year, who produces loads of literary material (both publishable and unpublishable), and who will be known as the “eccentric uncle from the East” by his nephews and nieces.
However, I believe the issue of how full-fledged, respectable adulthood is defined, was the deeper issue behind the original idea that had been brewing in my head.
The problem addressed in this piece was that people who qualify according to certain criteria are treated as “mature adults”. If you are old enough to qualify by default even though you do not meet these “benchmarks of adulthood”, you are still accepted as a fellow adult, but you are often reminded in subtle ways that you do not meet a few critical requirements.
It was only much later that I thought of something else. Is it not true that people will, in many cases, find anything to cast themselves in a better light? If the other adult is not married and/or does not have any offspring, they will find it in that. Then they will keep pounding this issue into infinity. If it’s not that, then it will be about the other person’s job or career, or their children who make too much noise, or “astonishingly poor taste in home decor considering they have so much money”.
Surely it is naive to expect that you will get the same response from other adults at the table when the conversation is about fighting crime in the local district, when the other adults reside in that area and you live in a crime-free enclave in Scandinavia. Or that your opinion will necessarily carry the same weight if the conversation is about the education of children when you do not have any children. Same goes for a conversation about marital problems if you have never been married.
However, some adults will always keep standards, hand-picked and custom crafted, that cast their own lives in a better light. For this reason, adults who believe in their own value despite the sometimes biased opinions of other adults will find it easier to get on with making a success of their adult existence, regardless of their own relationship status and property portfolio, and despite a possible utter lack of desire or even inability to have children.