The Bookworm Festival included a visit to a school run by the Migrant Children’s Foundation for children whose parents have been drawn from the countryside to work in China’s cities. A car picked us up from the Opposite House and drove us through thick smog to a ‘village’ near the sixth ring road. The first ring is theoretically round the Forbidden City – which is also the centre of the universe of course.
We drove past a vast construction looming out of the fog … the deserted Happy Valley amusement park, passing endless rows of leafless trees like upturned brooms – planted before the Olympics to filter out the choking red dust from the Gobi before it reached the city. Our driver got lost. There were no road signs but many rubbish heaps and choked canals. Someone was selling large, bright blue eggs outside some run-down industrial units by the side of the rutted road. A man was mending bicycles.
Bookworm had asked a group of us to tell the children a story using three items/elements particular to our country of origin. I chose a cheese sandwich, an umbrella and the Queen of England who had a crown for every occasion, including one for watching TV, bathtime etc. Who knows, it might be true.
The children and I did some warm-up drawings together, using a blackboard and chalk. The classroom was very cold … China turns off its heating on March 15th, and it comes on again on November 15th.
I’d bought some crowns from my local dressing-up shop – the class took turns being decadent Royals. My young interpreter William was delightful, and we all got the giggles from time to time, especially when William and the children tried to teach me the Chinese word for crown, which I’d pronounced ‘cucumber’ apparently.
I asked the children to draw a comic strip story about what they would do if they woke up one morning and could do something completely different. Many of them said they’d like to see their parents.