Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Wulumuqi Road: The Art (and Skill) of Observation

Kristin Bair-O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
At the beginning of April, my husband and I moved from the outskirts of Shanghai to the hustling, bustling downtown area, and our new neighborhood—Wulumuqi Road (pronounced Ooh-loo-moo-chee)—is a fascinating blend of old and new China. Lined with dozens of shops, Wulumuqi Road offers something for everyone: live toads (for cooking), sugary pastries, mounds of green onions and ginger, push-up bras, tea, umbrellas, live chickens (once again, for cooking), electrical cords, spices, pirated DVDs, fine French wine, dumplings, and more. My senses explode when I walk down Wulumuqi Road, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been wandering around with my camera, snapping shots of everything and thinking about how much the act of observation contributes to my writing.

To prove it to myself, after last Saturday’s walk I gave myself a quiz about everything I’d seen, heard, and experienced. Now it’s your turn. First, go for a walk. You can walk in your own neighborhood or take the opportunity to explore one nearby. As you walk, be conscious of all of your senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. Don’t think about the assignment you’ve got due to an editor by 5:00 or the sandwiches you need to make for the friends who will be at your house at 1:00. Just walk and observe…with your whole self.

Walk for thirty minutes (more if you can). When you get home, answer these questions:

1. Describe three people you saw. Give at least three details about each person.
2. Describe three smells. Where did they come from? If you couldn’t see their source, where do you imagine they came from?
3. Describe three sounds. What made those sounds? If you couldn’t see their source, what do you imagine made them?
4. Describe an object that you saw…one you found yourself thinking about long after you passed it.
5. Where does this lead you in your writing? A new article to pitch? New information about a character in your novel? A blog entry?

Here are the truncated versions of my answers:

1. Sleeping man (blue Nylon socks, stuttered snore, bobbing head), old man in park (apple-sized tumor growing from the back of his head, permanent stoop, adoring wife), employee of hair salon (hair dyed golden blonde, James Dean slouch, lost in thought)
2. White lilies, sewage, melted sugar
3. Two women haggling over the price of bananas (in China, you bargain for most everything), a cacophony of car horns, a man on a bicycle cart ringing a bell
4. A little girl’s pink cardigan hung in a tree to dry
5. My observations that day led me directly to this column.

Once you’ve completed the exercise, follow through on #5. If you’ve got a new idea for an article, pitch it. If your main character suddenly wears blue Nylon socks and has a stuttered snore, get it on the page. And if you’re driven (like me) to blog about what you’ve observed, skip the sandwich-making session (that’s what takeout is for) and get busy.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

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