When the subject line "Special Invitation" appeared in my inbox, my finger twitched towards the DELETE tab. Then my finger paused - just as well. It came from Anthony Tao, Beijing blogger, flash fiction writer, frisbee fanatic and co-organiser of China's Bookworm Literary Festival, now in its 10th year and bringing 40-plus writers from 20-plus countries to readings, panels and workshops across that country.
They'd contacted the New Zealand Book Council, and two Kiwis were invited: Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes, and ... me.
I was there for 10 days and went to four cities, each with populations at least three times that of New Zealand. In China, you don't get a McDonalds unless your town can provide a million potential customers and the places I visited had multiple McDonalds.
I arrived on a chill, black morning and checked into an award-winning hotel that had a gas mask in the wardrobe. The NZ Embassy had arranged visits to schools. I had to send them a list of my material so they could check there was nothing subversive.
Evidently there wasn't. I read my story about Auckland War Memorial Museum's great war canoe, Te Toki a Tapiri, to 200 uber-cool Beijing teenagers and realised after a few minutes that they understood - or at least nodded in the right places. Those teenagers go to schools with up to 4000 students, start lessons at 8am, in classes of 40 pupils, finish at 5pm and often return for evening classes. They wear tracksuit-type uniforms in white and green or red and blue. They stand to ask questions; bow before they sit down. And they grin, giggle, gasp just like Kiwi high school kids.
Our embassies and consulates did noble work picking me up, calming me down and moving me around. In Beijing, Chengdu, Suzhou and Shanghai, they promoted New Zealand authors and books, plus the whole business of writing and reading. I did a few readings in the splendid Bookworm Cafes/Bookshops found in several cities. I listened to an Aussie slam poet, an Argentinian editor, a French researcher. I talked to a Uruguayan chap-book writer, a Tibetan cinematographer and multiple Chinese authors. I heard Anna Smaill present eloquently and absorbingly in Shanghai. I signed a few books and hoped a few people learned something about New Zealand and its writing. In what's traditionally a solitary occupation, I felt supported and reassured.
At Chengdu No 18 Middle School, with its six-storey classroom blocks and statue of Confucius, I toured the premises and received a formal welcome where the introduction of every visitor and host brought a patter of palms. Then I read, talked and answered meticulously rehearsed questions from those courteous and endearingly serious young figures in their bi-coloured tracksuits: "What was I thinking of China? Is the Maori writing much read? Have you joy in your stories?"
A lot of years back, I wrote a YA novel called See Ya, Simon and, in several places across China, I found that pupils had been studying it, in English or in Mandarin. The final question at Chengdu came from Li, aged about 17. "Your book, Farewell See-Mon, say that in your land of Shee Sheelan, friends can flower together. Will you take back that in our land, we have hope for their being happy?"
I will indeed, Li. My pleasure; my privilege.