I saw the sign.
Ahem, well, now that we have that out of the way…the sign oh yes the sign. So I’ve passed by this sign probably fifty times or so, pass it and you can make your way to the local supermarket or the metro. It reads something along the lines of “Cars can make your way up here, and stop at this point.” It’s not a particularly special sign, it’s not a cool advertisement, and it’s not even particularly beautiful. I’d venture to say that if you always hit green lights or always walked across this intersection, you would probably barely recognize it. Overall, I’d say it’s not very noteworthy, and yet here we are.
This past week, on one fine evening, I was biking to the local supermarket per usual, and I stopped at this intersection, again as per usual, since the lights change regularly, it’s rare I hit the green light. As I sat in the bike lane, I saw the sign change from “Wait Here” to “Move Up” and I prepared to make my way across the first portion of the intersection. And then I paused, and gave the sign a second look. It’s a good thing there was nobody behind me because that could’ve been disastrous. But regardless, I took another look at the sign, and thought to myself, “That sign is all in Chinese characters. That’s crazy.”
I had a bit of what people tend to call a “moment of clarity.” It’s the sort of feeling that you get when you realize you’re in a box traveling sixty miles per hour on a road with other people in boxes, or when you look up at a starry night and feel how large and magnificent the universe is, or when you hear a shocking fact, or when you hit the bottom of the chip bag and realize that you’ve just conquered a family size by yourself. It’s the kind of light bulb burst that inspires you to think differently about something or even make a change. In this case, this sign which had for so long been just another object in a scene I’d view daily became something which drew me back to when I had just arrived in Shanghai, when even the buildings themselves seemed so foreign that it was frightening. And while the fact that a public notice in China is written in Chinese characters seems trivially unsurprising, in the moment it couldn’t have been more outstanding. How often do I see these kinds of signs? When I’m here, all the time, it’s not a problem. But how often do I see these back home? How often will I see these back home? If it’s a public notice, then never, at least not without some kind of English preface. This simple distinction, this simple indication of being abroad in a country quite distinct from my own, moved my heart to greater appreciation for the time I’ve had abroad and the time I have left. That sign recalled to me the newness, discomfort, and the excitement I had felt when I had just arrived. And in that gift of recollection it can become easy to maintain something which I’ve written about probably more than anything else: gratitude. Sometimes it can be pretty easy to complain abroad: my classes are killing me, these smog days are literally killing me, and really can a guy just get a PB&J? (If you’re in China, you can but you’ll have to work a bit to find the jelly.) So, sometimes it takes a bit of a reminder to keep you on track, in this case, a Chinese traffic sign, which took me back, by telling me when it was time to take another step forward.