Sunday, December 4, 2011


As a modest gambler, I’ve never had a problem taking money from friends. As a modest giver to charities, I’ve never had a problem giving money to the needy. As an encourager of book reading by my children, I have always loved seeing them read.
How things can go horribly wrong.
At four-and-a-half, Evie encountered her first school read-a-thon. Great, we all thought. She’d have a week to gather sponsors, read as many books as she could, and collect money.
“Yaay!” said big sister Lani. “You’re gonna be rich!”
How my little capitalist heart pounded. Then, my charitable heart found its feet. Still, I grew emotional over the genetic symmetry of it all. When I was nine, I completed a walk-a-thon and raised a princely $15. When my mother informed me all proceeds would be going “to the missions”, I was shattered. I took weeks to recover. I made sure I provided full disclosure that this read-a-thon would be helping poor Chinese children.

Evie at the start of her read-a-thon. OK, Mister Dog smokes
a pipe. And he befriends a young lad and takes him home for
the night. But it was my favourite book as a kid.

Four-and-a-half might sound early for a read-a-thon by western standards, but schooling in Asia is different. Evie isn’t such an avid reader - not as much as her six-year-old sister Lani. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging about Lani’s bookreading, but I will admit she’s stopped trying to explain to me what the hell Remembrances of Things Past is all about.
At least Evie wasn’t such an avid reader, until this whole cash incentive thing.
I looked at the read-a-thon information sheet and straight away I was struck by one thing – it had lots of writing on it. But, adroitly, I found the spaces where we had to write our sponsors and books. We signed people up. I thought 10 RMB (better known as kwai) per book sounded fair. If Evie read one a day that would be 70 kwai, or roughly $US10. Most people could happily part with that. For some I asked five kwai per book.
We signed 14 sponsors, mostly from our Beijing apartment compound. My wife and I committed to 10 kwai per book. I volunteered two grandparents and an aunt for the same. This would be a mild distraction, I thought, something I’d probably have to resuscitate every couple of days.
Thankfully day one was a Sunday, so Evie would have the time to read that she wouldn’t on schooldays. She started with The Colour Kittens. My wife and I noticed how her reading had improved.
“Great stuff,” I said. “Shall we go outside?”
“Another book!” she said.
“Oh. Okay then. Good for you!”
Evie read another, Rascal Goes Fishing, and then Mister Dog, making sure I logged  them. You can never steer your child away from reading, so when she chose book four, after wondering for a moment who this child was, I mustered an enthusiastic response of “Righty-oh!”
Finally I got outside to play. Then after bath came books five and six. I figured Evie was already up past 500 kwai. Superb. If she read no more books that week, her job was done.

Marcel Proust - what was he thinking?
No come on, what was he thinking?

On the Monday morning she bounced out of bed with an enthusiasm previously seen only at Christmas and raced for the bookshelf. Seven. Eight. I wrote them down, still beaming with pride. Unlike the young me, after all, Evie knew she wouldn’t be keeping the booty.
After school she read two more, then another after bath. Day three and the output dropped again, so it had gone from six to five to four. Still, that was 15.
By this point I was starting to get a little edgy. I wondered if I’d got something wrong.
“Wow, sweetie – at this rate you’ll be taking lots of money from everyone,” I warned. Evie smiled back, and read another book.
On day four she only read one. OK, I thought, the enthusiasm is waning. One more on the Thursday made 17. I could face my friends and family after all.
But Friday is stay-up-late day, isn’t it? Suddenly Evie had renewed vigor. She threw her schoolbag down and hit the bookshelf again.
“Daddy – I want to read more books,” she said. “There’s only one day to go!”
“TV?” I said. “Computer game? Ice cream?”
“No Daddy.”
“Ah, well, reading’s OK I suppose,” I winced. Eighteen soon became 19 and my head started spinning.
“OK sweetie that’s enough now,” I said in my firm voice, which went as unnoticed as ever as book 20 was pulled down and read.
 “DINNER!” I yelled as I carried Evie to the table. I had a feeling this was getting out of hand. I checked the list again, and figured she was on roughly 100 kwai per book. This was bad. Well, good, but a little bit bad. Before bed she reached 21, one called Things That Are The Most In The World. I feared she’d be in the next edition.

A large pile of Chinese money, yesterday. 

At last the final day arrived, with enough Saturday activities to surely keep the reading at bay. But again our little convert bounced up and at ‘em. I listened to my little girl reading for her noble cause. Every word ticked over another dollar sign, each with its own deathly clunk.
“Yes yes, Gruffalo Schmuffalo,” I said as I wrote.
What had I done?! We were raising so much money for charity!
But what could I do? If I handed the form in with lots of cross-outs and adjusted amounts, surely the fraud squad would be called. Would that look good, taking money - food and books - from the hands of poor Chinese children? With a noble, if hard-gulping determination, I resolved that under no circumstances could I dissuade my child from reading.
Evie opened book 23. “PUT THE BLOODY BOOK DOWN!” I barked. She gave me a weird look and started reading, something that halfway through started to sound dreadfully annoying. I did what most parents do when their child is enjoying something and started vacuuming. Still she read. She was like some kind of savant.
Mercifully, we had soccer. But the afternoon was free. So in went #24 - Little Jimmy Something and the Frigging Something.
“Twenty four now Daddy!”
“Careful now,” I said. “You don’t want to be a nerd now do you? You want to be popular, don’t you?”
But after bed, my tired girl managed #25, Harold And The Outrageous Money Grab, before finally finishing with book 26, Rascal Alienates All His Friends.
“That’s it. Goodnight. Proud of you and all that,” I said as I hit the lights. I walked off, ashen faced, to calculate the damage.

Do a google image search for RMB and you'll get
a picture of a guy eating a scorpion. Still, China's
currency system doesn't always make
this much sense. 

Later that week Evie’s school announced that their three campuses, which total 250 students, had raised 16,740 kwai ($US2,635).
Evie raised 2,520 kwai of it, or $US400.
Put another way, one-250th of the student body raised more than an eighth of the total. I think. You do the math. Clearly I’m not much good at it.
I was consoled by one thought: none of our friends could freak out, could they? Imagine the names I’d call them for their shallow souls? Still, one was almost knocked off her feet to be asked for 260 kwai, having expected around 50. I apologised as she scrambled round her house for banknotes.
When I delivered the money the school’s Chinese receptionist turned bright red and started giggling. As I left I looked again at that information sheet. It said: “So if someone sponsors your child for 1 kwai per book and they read 20 books, that’s 20 kwai!”
Looking back, it’s hard to know where it all went so spectacularly right. Did I ask too much per book? Did everyone else ask too little? Or was it just that Evie’s reading so many of them was the Act of God noone could have insured against?
In any event, it’s doubtful one parent has ever felt so sheepish and so proud at the same time. Still, next time I might bring something else to the read-a-thon: fiscal conservatism.

Evie the night after her read-a-thon.

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