For nearly two years we’ve been living in a small apartment in a suburb of Guangzhou. It’s a fairly typical Chinese flat, with a small kitchen, a smaller bathroom, two bedrooms and a lounge / dining area at the front. Something is always broken and it requires daily cleaning to avoid looking like a bomb site, though that may be more down to the kids than anything else.
There are lots of kids here. At times it feels like living in a day-care centre, which it is in a sense. We chose the flat because it was directly upstairs from the Montessori kindergarten, and on arrival found that of the five other flats on the floor, two had children who were attending the kindergarten, one of whom’s mother was a teacher there. Since then a few other children have moved in – the current count is six in four flats, none older than five years old. Every evening and all-day at the weekends they can be heard either playing out in the shared garden area or in one of the flats, which gives the place the feel of a community – a good thing on the whole, though I could do with a bit more privacy sometimes. Though we live in each-others pockets, only the children have names. I am “Leilei’s dad,” V is “Leilei’s mum” and nobody has thought to enquire any further.
The first family we met were at the far end of the block – a boisterous, physical, but emotional 5-year-old child called Shuaishuai lived there with his mother, a secretive, sad-looking middle-aged woman who apparently had another much older son in her hometown. Their house was one big, messy, undecorated bedroom for the boy, though he used the shared garden area as his personal playground too. Shuaishuai had little patience for M at first, as was to be expected for a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, but as M started to grow up a bit they would occasionally play together, and we were just getting to know the mother a little better when the father suddenly turned up and whisked them all away to Hunan with a couple of days warning.
Shuaishuai’s friend from before our time was the little girl in the flat at the other end of the floor, Yuanyuan. Initially our impression was that she was very bossy and had no patience whatsoever for M, but with Shuaishuai gone and M a little older, she became his friend, of a sort. Yuanyuan’s mother is a teacher at M’s kindergarten, and V has got into the habit of asking her for parenting advice when things are difficult. Yuanyuan has picked up on this too, to the extent that she now seems like a miniature version of her mother – serious, responsible, assertive. Once she heard us telling M that he had to come home and go to bed because a monster was coming (I’m sure some people will disapprove of this as much as she did.) After a brief word with her mother, Yuanyuan marched into our house and informed V officially that “M has the right to know there is no monster, and you don’t have the right to threaten him.” Yuanyuan’s father is a mild, mousey man who rides a bike (very unusual in 2015 China) and works in admin at the hospital. In the UK this family would be the epitome of educated middle class, but it doesn’t work like that here.
Six months after we moved in, another family arrived next door – a couple with a child called Xiaobao, who is about a year younger than M. At first we thought we would be friends with this family. The father imports wine and watches football, and the mother is from V’s home province, so they seemed like a natural fit. We even went on a couple of trips together before we fully realised how unstable Xiaobao’s mother is. In the UK she would have been given psychiatric help a long time ago, but again, this is China, and instead she has self-medicated with an endless series of self-help articles. Her main outlet for craziness is, unfortunately, Xiaobao himself. A slightly dopey-looking child at the best of times, he’s otherwise fairly normal, or he would have been if it wasn’t for his upbringing. Xiaobao’s mother is convinced that her son is weak and a victim, and that she can bully him into confidence, so to this end she hovers round him all day long, watching and judging every movement and nervously hectoring him to be more confident and do things properly. When other children come to play with her son she briefly puts up with them, until inevitably someone gets in the way of Xiaobao or wants to play with his toy or touches him in any way, at which point the poor boy will begin crying and his mother will shout at the offending toddler for daring to touch her precious boy and then express her disappointment with her son for not standing up for himself and being a cry-baby. Young children being what they are, this is the constant state of affairs, and the upshot is that nobody plays with Xiaobao anymore. V has steered clear of Xiaobao’s mother since she screamed at her for putting a bike in her way, even though it wasn’t her bike and she clearly hadn’t put it there. Frankly she needs help, but where to even start?
The next family to move in were the first locals to live on the floor, a family with a little girl, about six months younger than M, called Xiaoyingying. When they arrived, V was 8 months pregnant, and Xiaoyingying’s mother was 7 months pregnant, so this instantly became something to bond over, and before we knew it we were going on trips together almost weekly, picking each-other’s kids up from kindergarten, and M always seemed to be in their house while Xiaoyingying was in ours. Guangdong people are a little like English people, in that they won’t be friendly or open to you at first, but once you’ve managed to get into their circle it’s like you’ve been friends for years. The only thing we have to remember is that they are quite cautious and conservative about most things, and like to follow traditional ideas if they can. This is a slight concern when it comes to Xiaoyingying, who is very confident about most things, but will defer to M because she can then watch TV or get snacks in our house. Seeing the two of them together is sometimes a bit like seeing an old Chinese couple, and that’s, I don’t know, a bit weird.
There is one other family we see often, though they actually live on the floor above. The two kids there, Qiubao and Niuniu, seem to be entirely unsupervised, and spend their days going up and down the stairwell playing with whatever children or toys they can find. Their parents will often leave them to do this while going out for an entire day, though they are only about six and three years old respectively. If this were the UK we would call this “neglect” and call social services, but this is China and such things don’t exist. Qiubao is the older brother; Niuniu is three or four and follows her big brother around most of the time, though he doesn’t seem to have much interest in her. Most parents on the floor have gone from initial sympathy for Qiubao to finding him annoying – his borrowing of things, his sometimes aggressive manner, the way he’s always around – and have made it clear he isn’t welcome in their houses. Niuniu on the other hand is a natural diplomat, endlessly ingratiating herself with everyone. Without her, Qiubao would have been banished from the floor a long time ago. His only ally, funnily enough, is V. She feels sorry for him, lets him come to the house and play with M and even spends time talking to him – but even she always ends up turfing him out eventually. At first we thought their parents were just messy and disorganised – they always seemed friendly when we talked to them. Recently, though, Qiubao borrowed Yuanyuan’s bike without asking, stored it in his flat and broke it. His parents then simply threw it away without saying anything to Yuanyuan’s family, who only found out about this when Niuniu told them. When Yuanyuan’s father went to their house to talk to them about this (and about the things Qiubao had broken in their house) they were initially sympathetic, but when they found out they would be expected to pay for the damage, they simply refused to answer the door to him. Qiubao’s family have by far the largest flat and all manner of expensive consumer goods on show, so it’s unlikely that this was due to a lack of funds. They just seem to be not very nice people.
On the whole, though, I like this place, and I like the people here. But we’re still leaving.