Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Speaking up for elephants

Ming and I visited his cousin recently. On the table set a Buddhist-style necklace, somewhat similar in design to the one pictured below. I don't know much about this type of jewelery, but it's widely popular around China, particularly with men. My husband generally doesn't wear this sort of thing, but he likes holding it and turning it round through his hands, like one might do with a rosary. These sorts of necklaces and bracelets can be made out of anything from cheap plastic beads to jade to walnuts (the Chinese seem to have a national obsession with decorative walnuts). Unless you are familiar with them, it can be hard to judge the value of such an item by looking at it. Personally, I can't tell the different between a 10 yuan (US$1.50) bracelet or a 10,000 yuan one. Anyways, it's not really my style. But Ming holds a keen interest.

photo via Taobao

"Is this made from real elephant tusk?" he asked his cousin, upon spotting the necklace which was made most of dark beads but featured a large ivory colored piece.

"Uh, no, that thing only cost 30 yuan," he admitted sheepishly.

"My co-worker got one in Thailand, made from real tusks," Ming said, as if boasting on behalf of his colleague.

I inwardly cringed. I hate this sort of thing. I really do. I'm not usually one to take a hardline stance on issues. I like to fence-sit, play diplomat, see both sides. Not only that, I do readily admit, I am a carnivore. I also have no qualms with people hunting (deer hunting is a rite of passage where I'm from). But when it comes to the killing of exotic or endangered animals for decoration, medicines, or show-offy menu items (shark fin soup, anyone?), my blood kinda boils. I had to speak up.

"People shouldn't buy that sort of thing, they have no quality of character!" I exclaimed quite suddenly, passionately. All eyes turned to me.

"Well, if it's just one person, it's not such a big of a deal," Ming's cousin reasoned.

"But the problem is everyone has that thinking. And one person becomes all of China," I explained, "The African elephant is killed all the time for its tusks. At this rate, soon none will be left."

The room went silent. I don't know if I stunned them with my sudden outburst, but I didn't care. The discomfort in the room was better than me saying nothing. After we left, I asked Ming if he thought I offended them.

"I don't know," he replied, "but you were right in what you said." He put his arm around me.

I know it takes a long time to change people's mindsets. Issues like these, that some people actually dedicate much of their time and energy to, seem odd and pointless to many Chinese. What does it matter? They are just animals. What can I do about it anyways? I am just one person. But things are changing. I know they are. When I talked to some of my teenage students, I can hear the concern in their voices. They worry about the environment and wildlife. In Beijing, I have also spotted ads by International Fund for Animal Welfare, trying to get the message out to the masses. Here's one such ad:  

photo via 163.com

The top four characters, which aren't fully written and seem to be splattered with blood, are "Elephants, Tigers, Bears, Humans." Under the characters, it asks, "If elephants are without tusks, tigers are without bones, bears are without gallbladders, what are humans without? Humanity?" It then urges people to say "no" to buying of such wildlife products. Putting this sort of message out it the first step in getting people to think, to talk about wildlife protection and preservation. And it does it much more eloquently than my diatribes--hopefully soon there will be little need for them.

What about you, are there any issues that you feel passionate about? Are there any practices you've witnessed in other countries that bother you?


Autumn Ashbough said...

Glad you spoke up. It's awkward, I know, but to remain silent is to remain complicit. Well done.

rosieinbj said...

Thanks Autumn. While I'm not exactly shy or non-confrontational, I have a hard time getting behind hot button issues and politics. Sometimes I do think it's worth speaking up.

Anonymous said...

I've also seen those ads in the Shanghai subway! And also on the screens, maybe even Yao Ming was the spokesperson? (not completely sure about this).