Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Petting a Panda: A Lesson in The Personal Essay

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Congratulations! An editor at one of the magazines you’ve been pitching for months has asked for a 500-800-word personal essay about your recent trip to Chengdu, China, where you visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Pandas are, as you now know, one of China’s most valued national treasures, but like many animals around the world, they are in danger of extinction.

Once you stop dancing to celebrate the assignment, you’ve got a couple of decisions to make. First, what aspect of your trip are you going to write about? Don’t even try to cover it all. The magazine editor said 500-800 words and she means it. So while yes, the taxi ride from your hotel to the panda center was harrowing and memorable (especially when the driver veered so close to that mammoth blue truck toting at least 5,000,000 tons of old wood that you were sure it was going to topple over and crush you), save it for your article about taxi rides in China.

Instead go to what took your attention most, like how you got to stand behind (right behind) one of the adult giant pandas, put your hands on his back and get your photo taken (for a large fee that benefits the center).

Oh, yeah, you remember now, don’t you? That was pretty cool. And a little scary, especially when the gamekeeper mentioned (at the moment you set your hands on the panda) that pandas do sometimes get over-stimulated by large, loud crowds and become aggressive to those standing closest to them. From your new vantage point directly behind the giant panda, you watched dozens of tourists from all over the world push, shove, holler and snap photos not more than ten feet away, and keeping the gamekeeper’s words in mind, you tried to stay as calm as possible. You did not shriek. You did not raise your arms over your head and run. You did not grab the tuft of bamboo leaves from the panda’s paws because you wanted the photo to include a good shot of his face and all those damn bamboo leaves kept getting in the way. And you most definitely did not grip onto the panda’s very fuzzy, very adorable black ears and yell “cheese” as a second gamekeeper took a photo.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to write about, you have to decide in which point of view you’re going to write. Because this is a personal essay (get it? personal…about you), it is unlikely you’ll choose to write in 3rd person. (It would be a little confusing…and kind of weird…to write about yourself as “she” or “he,” but that’s something you can discuss with your therapist.) Depending on the material, your best bet is to write a personal essay in either 1st or 2nd person.

Next figure out the tense in which you want to write: past or present. Both can work well in a personal essay, and a good way to figure out which works best for this particular piece is to write the first few paragraphs both ways. Once you read them aloud, you’ll have a good sense of which works better.

With all the big decisions behind you, the rest is easy. Tell your story. Make your readers feel like they are right there with you…standing behind the giant panda in complete amazement at how bristly his black and white fur is and how you’ve dreamed about seeing a panda up close ever since your babysitter gave you a stuffed one when you were two.

And, oh yeah, don’t be afraid to toss in a fact or two. Readers love nothing more than finishing up a good essay, sitting down to dinner with friends and casually saying, “Did you know there are fewer than 1,000 giant pandas left in Sichuan Province in China?”

Now go to it!

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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