I pass through a small, quiet village called Gāo Jiā Zhuāng Chūn every so often. It has a main drag that is probably less than a mile long. On lazy days, when I don’t want to run too far or for too long, I use it as a shortcut to get home. I hardly ever encounter people there, though I’ve come across a dog or two. In the summer and fall some sort of crop is usually spread out on a portion of the narrow lane to dry in the sun. Mostly, it’s a pretty ho-hum street that doesn’t look much different from those in the other villages around these parts.
But last fall I noticed the neighborhood had suddenly been spruced up. Billboards with Chinese characters and simple drawings were hung on the sides of homes that lined the street. Clearly, each conveyed some sort of public service announcement (PSA). I can’t read characters but I got the gist of a few. Like this one below. Judging from the drawing alone, I thought its message was clear: don’t litter or pick up your trash.
I was wrong. I somehow convinced my Chinese friend (and fellow desperate housewife of Haiyang) to walk to the village with me on a cold and windy winter day so I could take these photos. Plus, I needed her nonprofessional translation skills. She laughed when I told her what I thought the billboard meant. It had nothing to do with littering. Instead, it was telling people that if they’re detail-oriented, they’ll be successful. “Or something like that,” my friend said. Well, okay, then. I hadn’t even been close. I struck out again on this next one, which I assumed meant something like “help the elderly,” but was told it was more universal and more like “be kind to others” or “be sympathetic.”
Since I was 0 for 2 and since the billboards were getting a little more text-heavy, I decided to stop trying to guess at the meanings. Instead, I let my friend do the talking. Translation is never an easy thing, but she did her best to clue me in. Often times, she laughed as she tried to translate. “You know China, we are very complicated. It is hard to directly say what these mean in English,” she said. I told her I didn’t mind. I just wanted to try to understand the messages being promoted. It was fun to see her reaction to the billboards, which ranged from aspects of everyday life to Communist Party slogans. When she read the billboard below, she exclaimed: “Oh! This is explaining a very new concept in China…kids, parents, spouses…no one in China says ‘I love you,’ but this is teaching kids to say ‘Daddy, Mommy, I love you.’ This is for the new generation.”
I got that the one below had something to do with marriage, but was thrown off by the nurse with the needle. “Is this a practice safe sex or make sure your partner is STD-free type of PSA?” I asked her. “No, no. It’s telling people that the husband and the wife should be equal in the family.” Once again, I stood corrected. It turns out the husband is a teacher and the wife a nurse. “You know…in China, many people think that women are still of lower status than men, but this is telling them that one partner cannot restrict the other spouse’s freedom.” In other words, each person should be able to work, study, and have their own social life.
A smaller, text-only billboard told parents that daughters (not just sons) have a right to the family’s inheritance. Another featured a famous quote from the Chinese philosopher Mencius who was a disciple of Confucius and wrote that if “you love people, people will love you and that if you respect people, people will respect you…or something like that,” my friend explained.
Then there were the billboards featuring Communist Party slogans. My friend sighed and laughed in equal measure when she read the text on the flashiest of them all (see below). She excitedly shouted out: “Oh, this is a big slogan in China! We learned this in school and got tested on it!” But then she seemed to have trouble putting the Chinese sentiment into English. “I learned this first in middle school, but I never really understood it,” she mused before concluding that this billboard said much the same thing as the others. In various ways, each informed anyone passing through the village that the party’s interests and policies were with and for the people.
I wonder if similar PSAs are played on television in between Chinese soap operas, talent shows, and news programs. In a day when most families have TVs, internet connections, and mobile phones, I wonder why these old school PSAs are still hanging around. Do the locals pay attention to them or do they pass by without giving them a second thought? It’s been about 1.5 years since I’ve been back to the U.S. and the only PSAs I can recall are those I saw through my car window as I drove along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Mostly, they warned me to pull over if I was sleepy and to not drive drunk. Occasionally, they reminded me that only I could prevent forest fires. Are there any pro-America type PSAs that I’m forgetting about or maybe never noticed? I’ll be on the lookout for these when I’m home next. Luckily for me, that’s in a few short weeks.