New York City experienced its largest snowfall in four years last Thursday night. On Friday morning, the street outside my apartment was filled with people shoveling snow, but only from the sidewalk outside their homes.
It is the law in New York and many other cities and states in the United States that you must remove the snow outside your property within a certain period of time or face a penalty. You will be held liable for any fall and injury by a pedestrian if the snow is not cleared in time.
Sweeping the snow from one's own doorstep, or geren zisao menqian xue, is a Chinese idiom which scorns people who mind only their own business and don't care about their neighbors.
Yet on my street, the thick snowfall, 21 inches last Thursday night and Friday morning, was swept from the sidewalk in a few hours when everyone took care of just a bedroom size of space outside their homes. Pedestrians, especially children and seniors, were able to walk safely and easily.
What is telling in this is that if everyone did their part of the work, society could function smoothly and beautifully.
The problem in Chinese cities these days is exactly the absence of the attitude of "shoveling snow from your own doorstep" that has long been belittled. As a result, many northern cities have been paralyzed in the past months after major snowstorms.
Since no one is bothering to remove the snow outside their own homes, the small army of sweepers hired by the government sanitation department in China has to clean up after people. It was so bad that 48-year-old Wang Changrong suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in January after he had been sweeping snow from Beijing streets for more than 70 hours.
Wang's case is an outcry to those who never sweep up the snow from their own doorsteps. It has also sparked many to call for legislation similar to those currently implemented in most US cities.
I don't know what's wrong with the Chinese saying in the first place. If you can't even do your own work well, how can you expect to help others? This should have wide implications for our society.
Just think if every person, every factory, every city and every province cleaned up the pollution they produced, China would not be repeating the environmental tragedies of some developed economies.
If everyone made an effort to stop the bribery of officials, cops, doctors, teachers and business partners, we would not have a culture today so steeped in corruption.
Or if people started observing traffic rules as a pedestrian or a driver, the streets in cities such as Shanghai would be less chaotic and dangerous.
It is easy for many today to whine about moral degradation and poor air and water quality than to ask how each of them has contributed to these problems simply because they lack the attitude of "shoveling the snow from his own doorsteps."
It would be a lofty goal for every Chinese to know how to help others. The more realistic and urgent task now seems to be teaching everyone how to clean his own mess and shovel the snow from his own doorsteps.
The famous idiom, written about 800 years ago by the Southern Song Dynasty writer Chen Yuanjing, should be rectified and set as a moral guideline for our society today.
Teaching Chinese the responsible attitude won't be any easy task: Most people still care only about what's happening inside their home.
I would like to see the motto of "Shoveling Snow from Your Doorsteps" as a public service announcement and see the slogan in huge billboards in many Chinese cities.