Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elephants on the Metro

If you stand on platform 13 at Zhichunlu Station just opposite the stairs, you'll see a number of posters lining the divider between the inbound and outbound rails. One of them shows a pair of elephants walking away from the viewer across a wide, green-brown plain. The sky is streaked with pink. One of the elephants is full-grown. The other is a calf.

When I first saw the poster, I thought it was intended to provide metro passengers with something pleasant to look at while they waited for their trains. "Well done, Beijing!" I thought. "What's nicer than elephants?" Then I saw the copy:

Mom! I've got teeth now!
Mom, I've got teeth now!
Hey Mom, I've got TEETH now!
Mom?
Mom, aren't you happy for me?

And, to the far right of the poster: "It should be a happy event, when a baby grows its first teeth. But, because people are greedy for ivory, countless elephants are needlessly slaughtered."

I've loved elephants all my life, and I'm on about a hundred lefty email lists, so I'm familiar with the story. Nevertheless, as I looked at the poster and read the copy, I felt my eyes begin to water and my throat begin to swell. The feeling lingered long after I had boarded my train and left the station.

No doubt this was partly because that's precisely the effect the ad was intended to elicit. The spectacular beauty of the picture, too sweeping and glorious for sentimentality, the rhythmic economy of the imagined dialogue -- this ad's authors really knew what they were doing.

And I think that's another reason I felt such a substantial response. I'm the daughter of a former speechwriter and communications consultant. A powerful respect for the friendly art of persuasion is bred in my bones. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I memorized Mario Cuomo's keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention. This had nothing to do with political commitment -- I didn't have any at that age, apart from a transient and imperfectly formulated regard for the Communists. I memorized the speech because very little makes me happier than really good rhetoric.

But I'm pretty sure it wasn't just the combination of quality advertising and a sympathetic message that left such a marked impression on me. I think it was something else, something altogether larger and at the same time more personal.

On my first trip to China in the summer of 1990, I lived in a student dormitory at the Harbin Institute of Technology. For no particular reason that I can think of, except that conservation was much on my mind in those days, I decorated my door with handmade notices advising their readers to "Protect the Planet: Plant a Tree," "Save the Rainforests," and, in pride of place, "Protect Our Elephants: Don't Buy Ivory."

I suppose I wanted to practise writing slogans in Chinese. That was probably the main part of the attraction. But I think I also wanted to put down roots, short though my visit was to be. I think it seemed to me that if I transplanted, through communication, the thoughts and wishes that I had at home, then I would somehow be at home in Harbin as well.

I don't know that I ever felt at home in Harbin -- I was only there about a month. However, I did communicate; I did elicit a response of sorts. A student in the English department, a very nice young man who came to visit the dorm quite frequently, eventually scrawled the following riposte: "Protect Young Girls: Don't Let Them Go Crazy." Shop-worn at home, my slogans were apparently too eccentric to be taken seriously in a Chinese context, even on a college campus.

Later on the same trip, my classmates and I were taken shopping in Beijing. We visited all sorts of places selling all kinds of Chinese artifacts. Eventually a shop assistant led me over to a counter selling exquisite ivory carvings -- figurines and palaces and rural idylls, all in the most meticulous detail imaginable. Small wonder that some have said, "Wisdom hath alighted on the hands of the Chinese." But when I saw the carvings, and the shop assistant's pleasant smile, I pitched into her. "How can you sell this stuff! Don't you know that elephants have died for these things? Do you really think they are worth the life of a beautiful animal! How can you think I would buy this trash!" She was quite surprised, but she nodded politely. I wonder if she still remembers now.

If she does, I wonder what she thinks about it. Was I just rude? After all, she wasn't the one who killed the elephants and hacked out their tusks. She was just working in a shop that sold the results, and it's not as if she had a lot of choices in her life. No one had invited her on a summer exchange program to study language and culture in a foreign country.

Or does she look back and think that she saw one of the first pebbles drop into the pond? Does she pass that poster, ever, and think to herself, "This is commonplace now, but I remember when it was as bizarre as the blue-eyed foreign ghost who came from across the ocean to wave her finger in my face and tell me what she knew?"

Of course, I wouldn't really claim to have thrown one of the first pebbles. I have played virtually no active role in environmental conservation. I sign petitions, that's about it. But I do have this funny feeling, being in China now and seeing the stupid, pen-and-ink ads I posted on a door in a dormitory in Harbin nearly twenty years ago done properly, done by experts, and posted in a bustling metro in the middle of a world capital. I feel rather as if I had been waiting for a friend to arrive, waiting a long time, and now at last I am hearing a knock at the door.

4 comments:

Willow said...

Beautiful writing. Lovely notion. Your instinctive focus on commonality across cultures is truly wonderful. You have looked for it and found it all your life, even when the linking thread required a great deal of poking to find. And you have apparently passed the notion on to your young students, what with one glorying in Horace and the other determined that China AND America share superpower status.

Nelson said...

caitlin,
you've captured my feelings exactly. sometimes i wondered if i was seeing even more public service announcements in beijing than i saw in new york. did they ever seem contrived to you, though? like, they were being displayed as a badge, showcasing beijing's "cosmopolitanism" and modernity? sometimes the action that we try to advertise is so much less sexy than the medium itself, and i wonder if we get caught up in the process rather than the message...

Chris said...

Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog. Thankfully it brought me to yours. What a brilliantly written blog you have. It makes me feel sick thinking about the ivory trade that unfortunately still goes on. That poster is something I never would have expected to see here, what a good message to pass on. I hope it works.

flyingfish said...

Willow: Thank you!

Nelson: Yes, I think you are right, undoubtedly it is partly a matter of face. But here's the thing: face is also a form of reality. I mean, sometimes certain values must be aired a bit before they can be worn comfortably.

Chris: Thank you, and welcome aboard! I'll be back to visit your blog regularly.