I joined a weekly writes program, from which I receive 3 writing prompts every week. I will try to write something based on one of the prompts as it lasts, and below is the “something” of this week. (well yes I got lazy in week 1.) The prompt is:
Create a portrait of an environment where you once lived or worked that is much different from your current circumstances. Include factual information and specific sensory details about this environment as well as the people who surrounded you in this place.
When I was little, we lived in Huangmugang — one of the biggest run-down areas in Shenzhen in the 90s — for three years. It was a 40-sqm studio flat with a tiny bathroom connected to an equally tiny kitchen at the entrance; at the back of it was a small balcony. We had some simple furniture, a dining table, a wardrobe, a TV cabinet with a tiny TV, and a queen-sized bed, which I shared with my parents from when I was 4 to 7.
Our flat was one of the twenty-ish on the same level. We lived in level 6 in the 7-level walk-up building. According to my father, it was officially called “the temporary unit for single-persons”. But I don’t recall ever seeing a single person living in those flats. In my memory, they were all crammed up by families similar to us, if not bigger.
It was part of the make-shift housing projects subsidised by the city government to place millions of young immigrants from inland China. My parents were one of those young immigrants, wishing to find their place in a city designated to pilot economic reform and opening-up. They made the decision to move to Shenzhen from a little-known county in Hunan province, where I was born. I was two and half when I first arrived with my mother after an overnight train ride with one seat ticket. I remember none of that, obviously. But till today, my mother still enjoys complaining about what a heavy baby I was, and I always enjoy listening to her retelling this bit of our early days.
My own memory sort of only started with the Huangmugang flat. I learned most of the basic skills in that flat. In the tiny bathroom, my mother taught me how to brush teeth on my own, how to wipe my own ass after shitting, and how to take a bath independently. As a kid, I couldn’t stand the flavour of toothpaste and for a long time, after my mother trusted me enough to let me handle teeth-brushing myself, I discreetly wiped them off from my toothbrush and spread them on the back of the bathroom door, which was filthy enough that no one would notice some extra fossilized toothpaste.
Outside the flat was the public corridor facing the outer of the building, sealed by steel bars. It was about two-meter wide and my mother taught me how to skip ropes there. It was a pretty open and harmonious vibe in the building. Men would chill out in the public corridor on hot summer days, topless. Some households would leave their doors open when they were cooking to ventilate the flat. At dinner time, the corridor was always filled with a mix of cooking fragrance. I’d run up and down the corridor sometimes to peek at other flats. I was not a shy child at all. One time, I was standing at the doorstep of a neighbour a few units from ours and watching the family having dinner, curious at something they were eating that I had never seen. The Cantonese man in the house saw me and invited me in to eat with them; I gladly joined them and tasted stir-fried clams for the first time. Soon my mother came to fetch me home and I told her the shelled meat tasted really delicious. Coming from an inland province, we weren’t in the habit of eating seafood. But since then, my mother started to buy clams in the market and it’d show up from time to time on our dinner table.
My parents were both teaching in middle schools. The school my mother worked at was very far from where we lived so she left very early in the morning to catch her bus. As a result, I had to get up very early too becoz she’d braid my hair before she took off. Afterwards my father carried me to kindergarten on his bicycle before he rode to work. The bicycle was the major transportation tool we used back then. It was a short ride, 20-minute or so. On rainy days, he wrapped me underneath this huge red rubber raincoat and I would sit at the back of the bicycle, listen to the raindrops hitting the rubber fabric and try to adapt to an altered reality of a damp reddish shade. I remember feeling extra safe under that red raincoat. Without the sight of the outside world, my father’s back was the whole world.
In the evening, my parents usually watched some domestic drama series from the bed – serving the function of a sofa – and I’d watch with them together. The series were usually portraying family ethnics in China and not meant for kids at all, but I always watched with keen pleasure and got addicted to the plots. I was not allowed to watch anymore after 9, the universal bedtime for a child. I’d sleep in the inner side of the bed facing the wall while my parents continued to watch the series. The next morning, on my way to kindergarten at the back of the bicycle, I’d request my father to fill me in with the rest of the episode that I had missed. Sometimes my father tried to skimp on it and I’d keep asking “what about that xx thread? nothing happened after xxx? what about the xxx character?” to squeeze more details out of him. As a kindergarten kid, I never felt the wish to watch any cartoons and instead, I was fascinated by those “real-life struggles” of the adult characters in those tv stories. I felt a strong wish to grow up overnight, so I could watch as much TV till as late as I could.
Occasionally, on a breezy summer evening, we’d go to the nearest department store as a “family night out”. My father would ride the bicycle with me sitting at the front on the beam and my mother at the back. On the bike they’d have a brief discussion about where we’d go for dinner – usually some earthy little place they know – and they’d inform me the decision as if it was a big thing. I was excited at whatever they told me. I remember enjoying roaming through the city in its vibrant night scene. The traffic lights looked dazzling and the air smelled sweet and hopeful, merely for the fact that we were on our way to the department store. In fact, I don’t remember of any major purchase in those trips. Maybe my parents never really bought anything. But nights of such always felt particularly satisfying, the three of us going out on one humble vehicle.
When I try to recollect the details of the years we lived there, there are very limited things I could remember and most of them are blurred. But one thing I’m sure of is, I was evidently a cheerful, outgoing and verbally expressive child. Despite the objective “bitterness” implied in the conditions, I thought of those days fondly. Every detailed scene that I managed to recall is like a dusted pearl at the bottom of a time capsule, glittering, quietly.
My parents remember those years differently, of coz. When I asked them about some details, they’d tell it as the hardest time in their lives. It was. I can’t imagine how they got through those years, with so little money, so little space, and so little visibility. As I’m at the same age as my parents were back then, I marvel at how perfectly they managed to shield me from the bitterness of their difficult times, and the endurance and strength it took to do that. They never once made me feel we were in a less than ideal situation and they raised me as a perfectly happy child as best as they could.
When I was in my second grade in primary school, my parents got the quota to buy the “welfare apartment” in a new big public estate. When they told me the news, that we were gonna move and I would soon have my own room, they were excited. I don’t remember feeling over-excited about that, and I didn’t really understand what was the excitement about. I felt fine living where we were.
Shenzhen is a different city now, every decade drastically overthrown the previous one. I belong to the generation that grew up with the city and benefited from its rapid development. I experienced its transformation without even noticing it, as I was too much a part of it, with my own life transformed in a way out of my realisation. The run-down area we lived in was gradually torn down for urban makeup since the early 2000s. I could only find the trace of it from dated news reports of the urban renewal projects. It’s one of the old pages the city has remorselessly turned in the past 30 years.
I know my parents’ decision of moving to Shenzhen has changed my life, very likely in a good way. But I don’t know if it changed their lives in a good way. My father was a young aspiring writer in his twenties with a promising prospect. But he barely wrote anything after we moved to Shenzhen, at first probably due to the condition, afterwards perhaps due to lack of motivation, or a change of heart. In the early years he was still keen to tell me stories about his writing life anecdotes, how he used to join those national pen club gatherings and how his short stories won prizes and got him a few hundreds of bookstore coupons. But he gradually stopped telling those stories. Instead, he advised me since I was in primary school that it’s not a good thing for a girl to be too absorbed in literature. He insisted on this value till I became an adult and was faced with critical choices of my own future. Looking back, I wonder if he was too wounded by his own unfulfilled talent that he tried to protect me from the same sort of letdown.
Our living condition significantly improved after those earliest years. I got my own bedroom. We started to have a telephone, air-conditioners, a real leather sofa, a piano, a car. And it seems, the complexities of life also started to emerge after that, those of my own, those of their marriage, those of us as a family and two different generations. The “hardship” of cramming in the studio flat, in retrospect, was probably a disguised bliss to us, a young family striving to take root in the big city.
It strikes me nothing really beats that after all these years, the solid sense of closeness I felt when the three of us were making our way to the department store on one bike, humbly, hoping for a better life.