“Oh my god, ohmygod!” A 14-year-old teenager is skipping on the sidewalk tonight, grabbing on his friends’ schoolbags and imploring us to take a picture with him. We are the first foreigners they’ve ever seen in their life.
– But where are you sleeping?, they ask us.
– We don’t know yet, we just got kicked out from this hotel.
– Don’t you want to stay at our place?
Now I’m the one who feels like saying Oh my god! He’s the first Chinese who’s inviting us to his house. It’s kind of difficult to be hospitable when the Party is breathing down your neck. What will your parents say?
Their parents are hundreds-thousands of kilometers away. Some are working in a shoe factory, others in a carwash. They earn about 500$/month, enough to keep their children in school in the city.
“We come from the countryside, we don’t have a lot of money, I’m sorry we don’t have better conditions to offer you,” she says.
I was in the rain all day, but it’s only now that my heart starts to soften.
They are three kids who are living in a 3x3m2 room, with cracked molding walls. One of them is hyperactive, the other is not saying a word, and the 17-year-old girl is like their mother. The ravaged bathroom is one floor down. The furniture is made of a suitcase where they keep their clothes, some piles of books, two bedside tables and two small beds.
They settle us in the bigger bed and they curl up in the other, taking turns to sleep in pairs, while the third sits in a corner scrolling on his smartphone.
“Let’s sleep now. I’m afraid we’re going to be late for school,” the girl is writing to us in the dark on WeChat; she apologizes again for the poor conditions, and then sends a rose emoticon.
We wake up at 5 in the morning, school starts at 6. They’re spending 15 hours a day at school.
15 hours?! Yes, they finish at 21:00 in the evening. First they have “self-study”, then the actual school schedule, then homework and other activities… a mixture of after-school and army.
But they start off to school joyfully. They are extremely happy they had the chance to speak to someone in English, because this language is very important for the exams they have to pass to get into university and become lawyers.
They are three of the hundreds of millions of children left behind by the Chinese exodus to the big industrial centers.
We say farewell in the rain.
– Goodbye, handsome boys!
– Brace yourselves, young comrades!