Raw Inspiration: Postcard From Shanghai

by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

Postcard

Online Only, posted 4.8.08

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The first time my then-fiancée mentioned Shanghai, China, and our future in the same sentence, we were canoodling in our favorite pizza place in Massachusetts. I, wildly in love, responded to the possibility with nothing more than a slight pause.

“Move to China?” I asked. “Sure, why not!”

After all, I was a writer, an adventurous one who loved exploring new places. Since college, I’d lived in three major U.S. cities and one cozy New England town. I’d even lived on a 588,000-acre ranch in New Mexico where I’d seen more elk and bears than people. An overseas stint sounded like the next grand adventure.

So, in February 2006, we got married, and six weeks later, my new husband and I moved from quaint, quiet Newburyport, Massachusetts to busting-at-the-seams Shanghai.

In the three months leading up to these two major life-changing events, I quit my teaching job, packed up two apartments, gave away my beloved dog, completed a cultural-training seminar that was supposed to prepare me for living in China, and said a lot of sad good-byes to friends and family.

On the very long plane ride to Shanghai, I ran through the list of questions that had begun to accumulate in my head the moment I unwittingly said, “Sure, why not!” I started with the logical ones. Where would I connect with other writers? Would there be coffee houses where I could hunker down for hours and write without being pestered? Would I have a reliable Internet connection? Would I be able to buy books in English and my favorite needle-tip uniball pens? (Just in case, I packed an extra dozen.)

Once I worked my way through the logical list, I moved on to the more abstract questions. Would Shanghai inspire me? Would I be able to communicate what I felt or needed even though I couldn’t yet speak the language? And ultimately, how would Shanghai and China work their way into my writing?

These were big questions to which I had no answers, and by the time we changed planes in San Francisco and began the journey over the ocean, my brain was screaming with exhaustion. I reclined the seat, ordered another glass of wine, and, within an hour, fell asleep.

To be honest, the first few months in China were both astounding and overwhelming. I suffered smold (smog-induced cold-like symptoms) and amoebic dysentery. I braved countless near-death experiences in taxis, learned to leap out of the paths of hundreds of bicycles pedaling at me from all directions, and became quite practiced at pantomiming my needs (hairdryer, scissors, refrigerator, etc.). I quickly discovered I couldn’t drink the tap water, eat fresh fruits or vegetables without a cleaning worthy of a nuclear reactor, or drive a car. And because China is a communist country with a penchant for keeping a close eye on its residents (especially its foreign ones), I am blocked from numerous Web sites on the Internet, most of which are writer-related. To top it off, the many buttons on my Canon 4-in-1 printer are labeled in Chinese.

These daily frustrations could have led me down a number of different roads: an embarrassing public breakdown that landed me in a Chinese prison; a return flight to the U.S. with a note left behind for my husband that read “I must have been nuts—meet me in Massachusetts!”; or an insatiable urge to explore it all and put it on the page.

Call me crazy, but after a few months, even the amoebas fed my creative beast. Last March, I posted the first entry of my blog, Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, and I’ve been scratching at the creative underbelly of Shanghai ever since.

Surprisingly I discovered a raw kind of inspiration that doesn’t spring from floral gardens or mint juleps at cozy street-side cafes. Shanghai is not Paris or Rome. It is a city desperately searching for its identity in the modern world, and in doing so, it vacillates wildly between ancient traditions and contemporary life. Mercedes zip along beside bicycle carts. Men urinate in public parks and on major thoroughfares. Glossy magazines and giant billboards tout the hottest fashions. Street vendors from western China sell bear claws and animal skins. Gorgeously modern Jetson-like buildings break the skyline. Babies toddle about in split pants, sans diapers. Twenty-somethings text one another on the newest cell phones. Greasy bicycle mechanics man the street corners and busy intersections. World-renowned hip-hop DJs flock to the dance clubs.

What they say in the newspapers is true. China is a land of opposites where yin goes hand in hand with yang, and Shanghai boasts it all. Old and new. Polished and uncouth. Startling and comforting. Beautiful and hideous. Filthy rich and pathetically poor. It is absolutely captivating, and despite the pollution, the constraints of living in a communist country, the frustrations of daily life, and the language barrier, it is the perfect place for a writer like me.

“I discovered a raw kind of inspiration that doesn’t spring from floral gardens or mint juleps at cozy street-side cafes. Shanghai is not Paris or Rome.”

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Comments

stickman says...
Fantastic article and great to hear that there is literary life in Shanghai. I lived there from 1998 until 2003 and will be moving back in the New Year. I would very much like to join a writers group and you have given me hope!
thewritermama says...
Thanks for sharing this overview of your Shanghai experience, Kristin. I've been hearing about your Shanghai adventures for a long time, but I really enjoyed this every-writer point of view. Thanks for a great read!

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