Writing Adventures in Shanghai
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
Shanghai is a city surging toward modernity. Here, everything and everyone longs to be hip, shiny, new, cool, sexy, sultry, and western. The downtown architecture is post-post-post modern…almost Jetson-like with pink spires and jingly baubles decorating the skyline. The highways are clogged with Audis and Beemers, pronounced symbols of success. Right now, Shanghai is a petulant, hormonal teenager who wants desperately to be a grown-up but who doesn’t quite fit into her high-heels and bustier.
In November, I visited Beijing, China’s capital city, for the first time. I’ve been yearning for this visit because as I write more and more about my new home, I find that in order to describe it clearly to readers (many of whom have never been to China), I need something to which I can compare it. Comparisons (and contrasts) always help to clarify a subject on the page. Use them!
So off I went, and as soon as the plane touched down in Beijing, I began scribbling a list of the similarities and differences between it and Shanghai. By the end of the trip, the list looked something like this:
Shanghai – narrow streets; crazy driving; lots of unnecessary beeping of horns; oodles and oodles of bicycles; palm trees; wretched smog; chilly, damp winter weather; wet markets; knock-off markets; big hotels; a sense of urgency; contemporary
Beijing – wide tree-lined avenues; horrid traffic congestion but much less swerving and screeching to mad halts; minimal unnecessary beeping of horns (thank goodness!); oodles of bicycles; deciduous trees; wretched smog; cold, crisp winter air; wet markets; knock-off markets; enormous hotels; a feeling of stability; austere; historical
From here, I’ve got a long way to go in order to work all these similarities and differences into the essay that’s beginning to take shape in my head, but so far I have come to the conclusion that Beijing is Shanghai’s somewhat stern grandfather who is full of wonderful stories and history. By comparing and contrasting these two cities, I’ll be able to draw meaningful conclusions for readers, and hopefully, bring Shanghai to life.
Now try it yourself. Maybe you’ve been meaning to write about your maternal grandparents. If so, compare them to your paternal grandparents or perhaps to your spouse’s grandparents. Or maybe you’ve been assigned an article about the new baseball stadium in your town. If so, visit comparable stadiums in other towns to see what is the same and what sets the new one apart. As you work these comparisons and contrasts into your writing, your subject will start to pop.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is a writer and writing teacher living in Shanghai, China. Her first article about The Middle Kingdom will appear in Highlights for Children. In addition, her work has been published in The ELL Outlook, PortFolio, The Gettysburg Review, The Larcom Review, Permafrost, and Hair Trigger. As a teacher, Kristin has been inspiring and motivating students for the past thirteen years. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” explores the curiosities of life in China and garners the interest of readers all around the world. To learn more, visit “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse” at