“Stride with purpose” I chanted silently to myself, as I marched through the entrance of Sun Yat-sen University in downtown Guangzhou, China – mercifully hoping it would disguise my pre-conference jitters.
I’d slid into China’s third largest city largely unscathed the night before, that is, all bar a ‘war of words’ with the taxi driver on the way from the airport!
I’m unashamedly a little smug, because the ‘feud’ was in Mandarin. Er hello! Yes, that’s me, speaking in the native tongue about fares, meters and foreigners! (To be fair we were almost equal in the language stakes, given in Guangzhou they generally speak Cantonese, not Mandarin!)
Naturally, he’d taken one look at me and put me in that foreign box of naivety about China and the scheming ways of some taxi drivers.
With my heavy (for a weekend to be spent in lecture halls) suitcase lugged into the boot, he’d driven about twenty metres up the highway before slowing down and trying to frantically shove a scrap piece of paper through the metal caging at me. I could barely make out the numbers scribbled down in the dark, but could tell it was a high price to pay, in China at least.
It was then I noticed the metre was off…not a light to be seen. A little panicked, I looked around in earnest …cars were tooting, weaving erratically around us. It was decidedly going to be all too hard to get out and heave that suitcase up the freeway, in darkness.
Puffed out chest, I attempted to say it was too much and simply “not gonna happen mister!” (or words to that effect.) My outer bravado hopefully hiding my inner fear as I calculated the level of risk. Unfamiliar city, unfamiliar destination, random taxi driver! But, I reminded myself, this is China!
He started driving, his sheepish laughter putting me at ease a little, all the while he was still trying to negotiate the price on that scrap piece of paper…
Eventually he realised he was getting nowhere and this ‘Waiguoren’ wasn’t going to fall for that old chestnut, again!
“Can I smoke,” he asked? “Definitely not,” I replied, indignantly! (As he offered me a cigarette, with a wink!)
An hour and 20 minutes later (it wasn’t quite the ten minute drive to the university I had anticipated via Google Maps), we’d pretty much driven from one side of the city to the other! It’s suffice to say, we’d become firm friends. I learned he’d never been out of Guangzhou. “What’s Australia like he pressed? Is it like Hong Kong? What about Xi’an?”
He’d taken to calling me “Ma fan” the equivalent of “trouble”….which I’ll take as a friendly gesture in this instance….considering we were utterly lost in China’s back streets and I was directing him in bungled Chinese via Google Maps.
It was the start of a weekend that both surprised and amused me on many levels; my first and hopefully not my last writers’ conference or “Con-Fest” as it’s been dubbed. A mix between a conference and a festival, it certainly was.
As I entered the lecture hall – greeted with the universal fluorescent auditorium lighting, flooding rows of flimsy pull-down chairs and tabletops, sloping down to a giant projector screen – I was instantly taken back to the early nineties and those heady university days drifting in and out of intensive lectures (probably hungover to boot!). Surprisingly I was early (and not hungover), so I scanned the empty seats for a suitable place for a ‘newbie’ to park herself….. I watched as people jostled in to the room, many looking jovial and familiar with one another, others almost as wide eyed as me…
That awkward reality of finding yourself in a room full of people, yet alone, is a confronting place to be.
Thankfully, I was saved from floundering for too long in my own trepidation, when a lovely lady sat next to me and introduced herself. She was from Tasmania, ahh a good ol’ Aussie lass. And then another from Indonesia. I immediately felt at ease, until my stomach started rumbling conspicuously (a result of having fled my hotel at the crack of dawn). As all good Aussie mums do, she immediately pulled out an emergency muesli bar from her back pack! A muesli bar, in China – I was chuffed.
The conference theme was aptly named ‘ideas and realities’ and what followed over the next two days was a whirlwind of ideas that came in the shape of lectures, panels, books and mesmerising discussions against a backdrop of ‘made in China’ reality moments.
A refreshing flurry of Aussie accents filled the air, along with those from India, Malaysia, Thailand, England and beyond.
Seeing the above image flash up on the screen with two books I’m currently (attempting to) read had me feeling like less of an imposter. Immersing myself in all things writing, it felt like I’d been transported into my own version of being a ‘kid in a candy store’.
Break time and navigating the squat toilets brought me back to my own reality with a thud. This is still China.
Dinner in the university hotel restaurant with chopsticks, cheap red wine and chicken feet had me chuckling, as those not from this part of the world eyed up the goods with a mix of intrigue and apprehension.
The atmosphere was buzzing and I had my first foray into the ‘spoken word’ in the literary world. Outside a television news report, I’d been unaware that writing involved so much air time!
One by one, courageous writers stood up, microphone in hand, proudly reading excerpts from their novels, works of non-fiction and poems to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd.
Day Two and we each lost ourselves in discussions of publishers, agents, authors, editors, translations and the reality of being a writer in Asia Pacific today.
Rain bucketing down, conference over — to congratulate ourselves on a successful event, a few of us decided to brave the elements and head back to the hotel of one of my new-found friends before the closing dinner. The girls spied the ubiquitous ‘Chinese foot massage’ sign and it was on…although it was almost off, as my dear Aussie friend tried to pay, there was that undeniable raucous chatter in Chinese, when something is not quite right. I managed to work out that they thought her money was fake. A quick inspection of the notes and their plastic texture a surefire giveaway, the 900 RMB she had withdrawn from the ATM, to her dismay, was all bogus! It was my first encounter with counterfeit money in China but finally the notion of cashiers tediously checking every bill through a machine makes sense.
Money problem solved, we found ourselves seated in plush massage chairs lined up in a row. Masseuses in teeny pink hot pants limbering up to tend to our tootsies. Hot tea all round and a rather ‘bloody’ Chinese movie on the tele…we were given a foot massage with the works…shoulders, legs, exfoliation you name it! It’s fair to say the “experience” accelerated the bonding process!
Feet tended to, we headed out for the final hurrah…off the crowded Saturday night subway, we found ourselves trapped in a maze of glaringly gaudy Chinese shops, going around and around in circles, desperately searching for an exit that kept leading us straight back to Walmart! It was mildly funny, for awhile. Finally we came across fellow writers and made our escape to a local restaurant specialising in all things unique to Yunnan Province!
Living in China, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, so when the restaurant staff began making their way from table to table serenading every body with shots of liquor, it was only mildly absurd!
Our bellies full of Chinese fare and a little bit of Dutch Courage, it was time for the ‘spoken word’ in a local Guangzhou watering hole. Hailing taxis is never an easy job for a foreigner in China at the best of times, let alone peak hour in the rain on a Saturday night but somehow we managed to pile into several taxis mid street and made our way to our destination – a dark car park. There we were led down a back alleyway flanked with graffiti stained walls. This was not the China I know.
Climbing a dark, concrete stairwell, we found ourselves in a nondescript room, scattered with little other than a few chairs, a stage and a makeshift bar, featuring half a dozen bottles of spirits and a cocktail menu that reminded me of something from the seventies. Down the corridor a jazz bar and a marijuana room were in full swing!
White Russian in hand, the spoken word began.
I have always assumed writers are shy, retiring types… hiding behind their keyboards, but i’m clearly mistaken…
With passion, intense emotions and quite a bit of humour, poems were performed on stage with surprising energy and gusto! Excerpts from clever, witty and daring authors were revealed under the spotlight.
I found myself nodding, laughing and quietly stunned. To be honest, the idea of standing on stage reading my own words, scares the bejesus out of me.
This was no high school talent show (although they didn’t exactly fill me with confidence either)!
I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a room filled with a more diverse group of people, yet at the same time, so many obviously like-minded people.
Thoroughly educated, entertained and exhilarated, I knew I’d entered a brave new world filled with ideas and realities…..and this time, it wasn’t China.