Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

The Mall Playground

May-Jun., 2015

By Tom Fearon

A young boy cautiously rides a knockoff cartoon character outside a supermarket in Changping district, Beijing. Photo: Abel Blanco.

Our daughter’s enthusiasm for her first excursion to a third-tier mall was wearing thinner than the cracking paint on the walls when we stumbled upon our oasis: a colorful baby playground aggressively blaring Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in Chinese. It was next to one of the few functioning escalators leading down to a supermarket where we needed a few groceries.

The playground was the kind you might expect to find in a mall with weary parents eager to put their kids in a padded enclosure with other squealing infants. It beckons as a safer alternative than the shopping cart, where a smashed soy sauce bottle is a tiny arm’s length away.

A middle-aged woman lay slumped over the counter at the front of the playground, no doubt lured into slumber by the endless playlist of lullabies. There were no other children, but that was understandable given about three-quarters of people in the mall were store attendants, security guards or repairmen.

“What do you think?” Xiaojing asked. Miya tugged on her arm in boredom and wailed.

My thousand-yard stare was fixed on a ball pit visible under a flickering light behind the sleeping woman. I imagined the muffled cries of babies beneath the multicolored surface.

The faded colors and music suggested she was in a place of amusement, but then again the hospital where she gets vaccinated also has its own “fun” area for children in the waiting room.

“Sure, we’ll amuse ourselves. You go on ahead.”

Miya and I marched toward the sleeping lady, who roused to reveal two surprises. First, “she” was actually a pot-bellied ponytailed man. Second, he wasn’t sleeping but watching a period Chinese drama on his smartphone.

“Fifty kuai for half an hour,” he mumbled, eyes still fixed on his phone.

Part of being a new parent is that you feel obliged to try everything at least once. It’s a bit like buying an iPad and downloading a bunch of crappy games – just because you can. I once bought expensive chamomile tea for babies not because our 18-month-old daughter is a hipster or had gas pains, but just because it said “for babies” on the label and I thought it might be wise to have some on hand.

Now, I was in another trap for naive new parents: the creepy children’s mall playground. Having it to ourselves wasn’t the paradise you might expect. In fact, it only made the experience more unnerving.

Miya seemed wary, too. The faded colors and music suggested she was in a place of amusement, but then again the hospital where she gets vaccinated also has its own “fun” area for children in the waiting room.

Maybe parents didn’t come here because some kid was horribly disfigured in a collapsed cubby house. Maybe this was the turf of a bully baby who scared the split-pants off other toddlers in town. Or maybe the playground was an upright attraction that had unfairly succumbed to the mall’s toxic reputation for business, from the “food court” (a lone donkey burger stall) to the nearby shoe store that lacked customers, staff and shoes.

Either way, we were here and trying to have fun. It was more interesting than my regular shopping routine where I fetch the heavy or out-of-reach items and then wait in the fish section (a cheaper, equally horrifying version of the Beijing Zoo’s aquarium) until it is time for the checkout.

Our first attraction was an electric ride-on Pleasant Goat, star of the eponymous hit Chinese animated series. Like the distinctly un-Disney Mickey Mouse portrait on the wall, the sheep’s blue fleece, pink face and menacing wink suggested it was made overnight by a factory worker making cash on the side.

Next up was what looked like a pool, but upon closer inspection turned out to be some kind of jelly pit with a thin plastic surface that babies seemed required to crawl across without being swallowed by the mystery substance.

Remembering he had customers, the ponytailed attendant flicked a switch that prompted a yellow octopus to roar to life. Its face, two uneven eyes and a thin curve for a smile, hovered above its spinning tentacles equipped with tiny grips for kids to hold as they spun around. The man put down his smartphone and stared expectantly at us like a Yashow Market vendor trying to close a sale. I smiled politely and shook my head. Not today.

We were walking toward a steep slide about five meters long with as many dips when Xiaojing returned with the groceries. Miya toddled away from me and into her mom’s arms, allowing us to safely check off the creepy mall playground from our parenting bucket list.

See the original article here.