Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Corner: China - The Sounds from My Window

Though I live in the middle of a densely packed city of 4 million, there is no early morning traffic or engines firing to wake me up. My apartment is on the second floor, and  located amongst many other buildings, everything is accessed by narrow lanes and alleys.  There is not a single truly noisy street.  It is the human sounds of waking that instead greet my ears every morning. I hear neighbors’ birds out for an early morning stroll, dangling in a delicate wooden cage from an elderly man’s hand and singing to each other.  Amongst the matin, there is also the shuffle of footsteps of people going to work, the putter of a moped coming to life, and the voices of women greeting each other, their walk to the market interrupted for a quick chat.
As the morning lengthens, the low rumble of men rolling the lanes’ garbage bins away to be emptied in a distant truck can be heard over the chatter of women, now sorting and cleaning the fruits and vegetables together in the small “park” beside my building.  (I say “park” because the only thing that distinguishes this area from the surrounding sea of pavement is a couple trees and benches.) There is also the occasional conversation between two men, which actually sounds more like an argument.  (Chinese people are very passionate when they are trying to make a point, and as a consequence, I constantly misinterpret friendly conversation for anger.) 

Towards noon, the day quiets as the children are away studying and the adults are at work.  The only people alive are the elderly, who carry wicker chairs outside to bask in the sun to chat if they feel like it. Occasionally through the quiet, one can hear the monotonous nasal drone of the man who rides a three-wheeled bicycle through the neighborhood, calling to open windows for recyclables.  There is also the occasional shout of a man selling, something.  (Someone is always trying to sell some small tidbit of life, his voice advertising the service, his bicycle the shop.)

Just after noon, the streets come back to life and are filled with people coming and going to lunch.  Notable amongst the shouts is the play of Scrappy Doo Nation – the fashionable youth with their Rocky the Raccoon hairstyles, who are much noisier than the reserved older generation. But like a switch, when two o’clock rolls around, the entirety of China quiets to a whisper level.  In the warm afternoon sun, I see the hawkers sleeping in the back of their three-wheeled bicycles, random feet poking at leisure from car windows, and men curled up on newspapers on the street, entirely oblivious to the world in the enjoyment of their afternoon’s siesta.

Imperceptibly, the streets gradually come back to life in the middle of the afternoon.  Around four, I begin to hear the Chinese equivalent of ‘Fore!’ being shouted, followed by a tremendous explosion that rattles my windows. The blast comes from a man who has a contraption that I cannot even begin to describe. Suffice to say it makes delicious popcorn and the Chinese equivalent of rice crispies by exploding hot air inside an old tire tube.  (Though you can taste a little of the rubber, the popcorn is not that bad.)  As the explosions have no rhythm or discernable patterns, they scare me every time, bringing a little variety to the day. (There are days he wheels his contraption to other neighborhoods to ply his trade, so I’m not constantly living in a war zone.)

At the end of the work day, the lanes outside my apartment become noisy, people returning home to their families and delicious food.  There are many voices, dogs barking as they have just returned from a walk with a parent to pick up a child at school.  There is also perhaps the most unnerving sound I’ve ever heard.  Worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, the sound is dry bicycle brakes.  The street outside my windows is at ever so slight of an incline, so it is necessary to use your brakes when returning home.  It is a squeal that stabs like a needle into your eardrum, tearing a ragged hole and driving itself deeper as the bicycle moves closer.  Multiply this by the many-many bicycles returning home and you’re ready for the funny farm.  (The crinkle lines on my forehead have certainly developed apace the past year.)

As darkness falls, the noise subsides only a little; there is still a fair amount of activity in the nearby park. Children, free from school, run about and play as their parents gossip about the day and bicycle restaurants peddle their foods.  But, by ten o’clock all is quiet until the next morning, everyone relaxing in their homes, readying for another day. 

Not so bad for a city of 4 million.

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