One of the cruel pleasures of non-parents is the observation of friends and relatives after the arrival of their first-born. The sibling or former school buddy and his or her mate suddenly change from easy-going pals always ready with a laugh into deadly earnest and panicky worriers with little time for you. Watching them fuss over feeding and changing, and bicker over precise baby-handling techniques, you get a sense of déjà vu. You remember them like this before. When was it?
And then it comes back: it was the play-acting and role-playing of childhood, when we were make-believe cowboys, doctors or shopkeepers. These adults before you now are not so much being parents as pretending to be parents. Perhaps in non-Western societies with extended families in which youngsters take part in caring for toddlers, new mothers and fathers are less self-conscious and awkward. But the effect of the first birth on my own peers has been noticeable; they are, or were, novices desperately trying to give the impression they know what they are doing. (They are seasoned and confident and even relaxed when kids two and three come along.)
Beneath the arrogant and smug veneer of Hong Kong’s British-trained colonial-style bureaucrat-leaders we can detect a similar quality of veiled but unmistakable amateurishness. These highly skilled administrators, so accomplished at ensuring the sewerage system works smoothly, the Massage Establishment Licences are issued on time and the company registration fees are collected efficiently, are pretending to be statesmen and politicians. And it is a laughable sight. The more assured – not to say defiant – they appear, the more you know that behind the scenes they are fumbling with the diapers, spilling formula all over the floor and accidentally scalding the little mite with boiling bathwater. Occasionally, as with the recent budget U-turn, we have to stand in horror and look on helpless as one of the incompetent buffoons, airily dismissing any comments we might have as worthless, lets the struggling babe slip from his fingers and fall to the ground with a screeching, bone-snapping crash.
It is hilarious enough watching robotic civil servants trying to convince themselves and the rest of us that they know how to formulate policy and provide inspiring leadership. We also get to watch the pro-government lawmakers give their obedient, grinning nods of approval to Financial Secretary John Tsang’s pitiful Last-Minute All-New Cash-Flinging Budget. They are playing at being big, sensible and constructive boys and girls who get pats on the head for being so mature. And now we have the pro-democrats modestly demanding that officials (who, from what we can see, are barely capable of feeding themselves) instantly produce plans – right now, mind – for a universal pension, affordable housing for all and immediate increases in recurrent welfare expenditure, not to mention a guarantee of eternal life for all permanent residents. Their game of make-believe is a bit different: “Let’s pretend we’re real politicians who have a clue, and we’re the good guys with justice on our side, and let’s pretend we’re debating other real politicians who have a clue, and they’re the baddies.”
It’s a source of endless amusement. Emphasis on ‘endless’. Parents learning child-rearing from scratch as best they can grow into it and become the real thing. These people have been acting out their parts for decades.