where the writers are
If You Travel to China, Don't Say You're a Writer
shanghai expo.jpg

If you have any intention of traveling to China, then don’t tell anyone working at the Chinese consulate that you’re a writer.

That’s the lesson I learned when I went on a vacation earlier this month to Shanghai to tour the World Expo. A visa is required to enter China as a U.S. citizen. I was not on assignment to do any reporting, so I did not think I should identify myself as working “media” on the application form. This would have required getting official news organization credentials and implied that I was headed over for a story, which I was not.

But I did not want to lie on the application, so I went through the many roles I play in my life and came up with the one I figured would arouse the least concern: novelist.

Boy, was I wrong.

The young woman at the visa office in San Francisco browsed my application and immediately pointed at one word. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Novelist,” I said.

“Writer?”

“Novels.”

“Books?”

“Uh, well, yes…fiction.”

“Writer!”

She turned away from her window and called over her colleagues. They conferred in Chinese, and she asked me, “What are your books about?”

My two novels are both set in San Francisco, but not in the G-rated neighborhoods. And the second one is a bit political. I felt panicked. There’s no way they’ll let me into China if I explained the plots in these books. I stammered.

The woman turned away to confer with colleagues. She was probably only gone a few moments, but it felt like an eternity. When she came back she handed me a blank sheet of paper and said, “Write.”

“What?”

“Write what your books are about.”

A confession. She wanted me to hand write a confession there on the spot about my work as an author. I remembered a recent speech I’d heard – though I couldn’t remember who said it – about how writers have historically been considered quite dangerous. After all, words precede revolutions. Martin Luther’s postings. The writings of our founding fathers. Sarah Palin’s tweets.

At that moment I realized that I, too, was one of those dangerous people because I could, theoretically at least, write something that could provoke people into action – you know, real action – more than just reading my column in Friday’s paper, sighing deeply and making a contribution to the compost bin.

Following the woman’s instructions I wrote down the names of my publishers and the titles of my novels. Then, in ridiculously large scrawl, I wrote, “I write novels about life in San Francisco.” And in even bigger letters I signed my name. I think I even added a flourish. This was my John Hancock.

She accepted the paperwork matter-of-factly and a few hours later I returned to pick up my completed passport. My travel companions, who filled out the same forms and paid the same fees – with occupations of “retired” and “teacher” – were both granted visas for a year with an unrestricted number of entries into China. For me: one entry only, and the visa expired in 90 days

As we took our trip, each time my passport and visa were inspected in China, I feared the worst. My friends and I had made plans in case I was detained. It added a layer of anxiety to what was otherwise an exciting journey.

And in the end I did end up writing about Shanghai – as a journalist. I wasn’t my plan, but when I returned home I learned that our governor was making plans to bid on the 2020 World Expo to be held here in the Bay Area. What I’d seen on my trip was suddenly relevant to the public interest, and became the subject of a column I wrote for The New York Times and The Bay Citizen.

I turned out to be a writer after all.