The article was first published in World View Magazine, Issue 2021/02.
This English version was translated from Chinese original using DeepL, with my manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any further mistakes made by this AI translation tool.
In the early spring of 2020, I was traveling in Romania. The bustle and comfort of the capital, Bucharest, made it hard for me to associate it with the poorest country in the European Union. “Are there poor people in Bucharest?” finally I asked my Chinese friend who lives here.
“They’re in the south, a place called Livezilor.” My friend read my mind, “But don’t you go there, it’s too dangerous, it’s all Gypsies. Drug use, crime, everything. I’ve lived in Bucharest for over ten years and I’ve never been there.”
I approached my Romanian friend then to find out more about what was going on there. If my Chinese friend’s tone was only slightly fearful, this native Bucharest man didn’t hide his disgust: “What will you do in a place full of Gypsies? Do you want to die?”
The first time I heard the word “Gypsy” was in a television presentation of Spanish flamenco. I thought that the people who invented the flamenco dance were just a minority group in Europe who could sing and dance well. However, when I arrived in Europe, I realized that the Europeans, who usually claim to be “equal and tolerant”, were disgusted with this foreign nationality at most. “Thieves”, “liars”, “beggars”, are the descriptions I heard most of them.
In fact, the term “Gypsy” is itself a term of contempt. The name derives from “Egyptian”, because Europeans thought that the brown-skinned people came from Egypt. But their real home was India in the East, and the correct name would be “Roma”. This people, whose creed is wandering, wandered all the way from India to Europe a thousand years ago, but always clung to their own way of life, refusing all possibilities of integration into the local society. Often without proper job, they lived mainly through crafts, song and dance, and divination, and many of them were thieves, which led many Europeans to hate them.
Two years ago, while waiting at a red light at a junction in the capital of North Macedonia, I had an unlikely encounter with a Roma woman with three children. She came at me with a dirty rag in her hand and started to wipe the glass of my car without asking. I was so frightened by this forced sale that I had to waved my hand to stop her madness. However, I never knew where those Roma lived and what kind of life they led. Was it worth going to the almost demonized Livezilor to find out what kind of place it was?
The first page that popped up when I typed Livezilor into a search engine was a report by a Swedish journalist who spent three weeks in 2015 investigating the area. She didn’t hide the fact that it was a hostile environment and drug-ridden. The second page, which said it ranked as the “third most dangerous neighborhood in the world” by a British media outlet, was enough to make me gasp.
Yet a third page caught my eye: here was actually a troupe called Playhood, with all the teenagers from this neighborhood. What kind of group of people are they? Why would they form such a troupe? I finally found the reason I had to go to Livezilor once.
I left a message on the troupe’s Facebook page, fearing that no one would understand English, so sent it again with a software translation into Romanian. To my surprise, I soon received a reply, and it was actually in extremely standard English. I was told that they were at an address in the Livezilor neighborhood, that they were having a rehearsal that afternoon, and that I was welcome to visit. As for my concerns about whether it was safe to go there, his reply was simple: Come on, it’s fine during the day.
Half-heartedly, I stepped onto the tram to Livezilor. Once I got off, I still had to cross half of the Livezilor neighborhood to reach their address. To be honest, apart from the dirty streets and dilapidated buildings, it didn’t look like the crisis-ridden slum I had imagined: children were playing football and laughter was heard throughout the streets. When they saw my unfamiliar face, they shouted “Hello” to me.
The gentleman I spoke to online led me into a (probably the neatest) apartment building on the entire block. The large, heavy iron gate at the entrance to the courtyard completely isolated the place from the outside world and reminded me that the world outside the gate might not be as nice as I had just seen it.
He spoke English as fluently as he did on the Internet, but had a face that didn’t look at all like a Roma, and was even less like a teenager in age. What was going on here? Fortunately, his timely introduction of himself answered all my questions.
His name is Ionuţ and he comes from Sibiu, a city in the north. After graduating with a master’s degree from one of Romania’s most prestigious theatre schools, he worked as an actor before devoting all his energy to helping the children of the city start the Playhood troupe. Speaking of his beginnings, Ionuţ said he was “grateful” for a web video he saw earlier: the protagonist, a Roma teenager from Livezilor, who never had any professional guidance before but showed an amazing talent for acting. At that time, Ionuţ, like most Romanians, had nothing but fear and loathing when it came to Livezilor and the Roma. However, that video changed him forever and he started to consciously reach out to the Livezilor children until he made helping them the subject of his and Mădălina(his girlfriend)’s life.
“So the inhabitants of Livezilor are all Roma?” “Not really, there are some other ethnic groups as well. But every family has a tragic story.” Ionuţ said.
Livezilor was the oldest industrial area of Bucharest, a prosperous and peaceful place for industrial workers for almost a century, from the end of the 19th century until the Eastern European upheaval in the 1980s. With the fall of the former socialist government, the state-run factories here also lost their competitiveness and closed down. The laid-off workers moved out one after another to find another way out. Livezilor, once a bustling city, gradually became an industrial wasteland like Detroit, USA.
The Roma, who were forced to go to school and assigned jobs during the socialist government, also saw their “freedom” – many of them were abandoned by the new society, and Livezilor, where the rent was low enough, became their playground. “Can you believe it, you can rent that building for a whole month for 20 euros!” Ionuţ said, pointing out the window at the old workers’ dormitory building in the typical Khrushchev style.
The overcrowded, chaotic living conditions and over 80% unemployment make it a hell of drugs and crime. The only crime that doesn’t exist is burglary – because there’s really nothing to steal from their homes. Many people spend almost all of their income on drugs, and the only “entertainment” is having kids, a whole lot of kids.
The government has long since given up on the area altogether and no longer provides any public services: power lines are privately pulled by residents, running water is non-existent, garbage is everywhere and emits a foul stench. Schools exist only in theory: parents send their children to school and they will take them in, but many parents don’t want their children to go to school at all. As far as they are concerned, the only purpose of raising children is to get them out early to make money (whether by a proper job or crime) so that they can provide for their own drug use.
Even when they are lucky enough to go to school, the education the children receive is ridiculous: according to Ionuţ, the school only teaches them the pronunciation of the 31 Romanian letters so that the students can pretend to be able to read a text aloud when the officers check it. But the school doesn’t teach them the meaning of each word, so they don’t actually know what they are reading. There are even students in middle school who can’t pronounce “201” and “2001” correctly!
Ionuţ therefore prefers to call Playhood a “teenage community organization” rather than a troupe. In fact, in order to get the kids to understand the play, he had to teach the group, mostly teenagers, the basic knowleges from spelling, just like a primary school teacher. He recalls that when he first came here, his day job was to talk to the kids on the street and ask them if they wanted to come and do something fun.
Little did he know that the biggest resistance he would encounter would not come from the kids themselves, but from their parents. To those parents, anything that prevented their kids from going out early and making money was out of line. “This situation didn’t get better until Playhood started getting offers to play for pay and the kids were earning an income.” Ionuţ said with a bitter smile.
Now, more than 20 Livezilor teenagers have joined Playhood, a rented house of less than 30 square meters that serves not only as a small home for Ionuţ and Mădălina, but also as a studio for Playhood. The living room-cum-kitchen is the kids’ classroom, while the small bedroom is their practice space. On that afternoon, there were four children here.
Ionuţ’s answer confirms my suspicions: he recalls taking them to a show with a large audience and being subjected to numerous discriminations and insults in the 100 meters they had to walk from the vehicle to the stage. The audience whistled, cheered and shouted discriminatory language at them; moreover, they spat directly at them.
That show was an elaborate metaphor by Ionuţ: a group of people, each holding a red sign, with only one man alone holding a blue sign. It was clear that he was alienated by everyone and was in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Eventually, he reluctantly throws away his blue card and holds up a red card that is indistinguishable from the others.
How is this not the case with Livezilor? Most of the previous “help” for the Roma was aimed at equipping them with modern work skills. It is true that some Roma have followed this path and have even become successful. But many of them who have integrated into modern society have since become ashamed of their fellow countrymen and no longer even recognize themselves as Roma. For Ionuţ, “integration” should never be accompanied by a ruthless abandonment of one’s own minority culture. He hopes that the talent of the Roma youth in their national tradition can be explored and that scientific and modern guidance can be provided so that they can find themselves and their self-confidence in acting and become “proud Roma”.
Unfortunately, one short performance is far from changing the stereotypes that have been in people’s minds for thousands of years. At the end of the show, they still left the stage in dismay, amidst a chorus of catcall. But one old woman came backstage to find them and hugged them one by one with tears in her eyes. She said that the show had changed what she had known for most of her life. As she spoke, I saw the hope in Ionuţ’s eyes.
Now, three years have passed since Ionuţ had the idea to help the Livezilor children. Most of his first members have “graduated”, and several of them have found official jobs in professional troupes of Bucharest, and some have even landed a role in a film by one of Romania’s most famous directors!
“But there are people who don’t end up on the right path. Just last week, one of our members was put in jail.” Ionuţ said regretfully.
The members of Playhood sent me off with a line ensemble. Even though I couldn’t understand every word they said, I could still feel their soaring youth and confidence. I wanted to go across the street to the old workers’ dormitory building, which has become almost a symbol of Livezilor, to take some pictures, but Ionuţ stopped me. He said that in the past few years too many curiosity seekers had gone there to take pictures, some of them simply treating the residents there like animals. As a result there had been several incidents of outsiders being attacked by residents, especially those who were on drugs. He didn’t want me to get hurt, nor did he want the residents there to get hurt.
But he and Mădălina went around with me anyway. What I saw was just like what I had seen on the internet: garbage everywhere, full of despair. And here was the home to which the kids who had just rehearsed so brightly were to return later. The addicts wandering downstairs, their eyes lost, were their parents and families. I’ve never seen a place where hope and despair are so close together.
A police car whistles away with its lights flashing. “It seems to you that there are police cars on patrol?” Ionuţ said indignantly, “No, they’re just on routine duty. If you call the police to say someone is fighting or taking drugs, not only will the police not care, but also they will give you a ticket! That’s what’s happening in Livezilor.”
For almost a year after leaving Livezilor, I’ve been silently following the Playhood via Facebook. Like many countries in Europe, soon after I left, the entire Romanian society came to a near standstill due to the pandemic, and naturally, the performing arts industry as well. Luckily, Ionuţ took the teenagers and found a new stage in Tiktok and webcasts.
They are still crammed into the same small rented room, not knowing when they will be able to achieve their wish of “getting a bigger studio and expanding to 30 members”.
Ionuţ remains unremitting criticism of the government. He and Mădălina even wrote an open letter to the President of Romania. In the letter he posted a photo of a long-stopped school site. He questioned the government about when children would get the education they deserve, as the president promised in his election campaign, “to create a Romania where everyone is educated.”