A short essay about all things audible in the Middle Kingdom.
On the Sounds of China
If I were to write a book about what it’s like to live as an expat in China, I think that I would write a whole chapter on sounds. As a Canadian, I relish in the quietude of nature and grew up taking these luxuries of space for granted. Depending on your outlook on sounds, you might enjoy the volume of China. Or, like me, maybe you revel in silence and find loudness to be a physical assault on your senses and health. The truth of the matter is this country is alive with sounds. Whether you like it or not, sounds amplify the airways, they populate the streets, pollute the air with noise, fill the cramped hot subways, and vibrate in the pulse and the blood of its people. Some sounds shriek, others hum, while some seem to hork onto your face, assaulting your humanity and sense of personal space.
Sounds in China manifest in a myriad of forms. There are intrusive, brash sounds – war-like explosions from fireworks before sunrise - causing the listeners to wonder if a celebration, the birth of a new child, or a new business is to blame for waking you from your slumber on a Sunday morning. Other sounds take on a more humanly form, the sound of young couples cackling and playfully yelling outside your window, a grandmother blissfully cooeing over a baby, the hoarse cough from an senior who smoked their entire life. There are the piercing yells of a spoiled toddler, or passengers on a bus shouting for no apparent reason into their cellphone, at a volume that even maximum headphone volume cannot drown out.
Not all sounds are destined to irritate and annoy. Some can inspire, surprise, and entertain. If you are attentive enough, you could notice the beautiful and melodious tunes that fill the air and hearts of the Chinese people. Somewhere, out there, the music from an erhu and staccato singer radiate from a second floor window. Inside small rooms with smoky air and round tables, the clicking of tiles accompanying elders engaged in a serious game of mahjong. Or maybe you receive the soft gentle smile and greeting from the aiyi in the ladies toilet, or a reminder in a local dialect you don't understand from guards in their army green coats reminding you that your package has arrived. In the suburbs outside of Shanghai, if you listen carefully, you may even hear birds talking to each other, or a late night a chorus of frogs in the springtime.
During my four years in China, some of the most pleasing sounds I experienced were early in the morning, before the cities awakened to urban chaos and noise. On leafy tree-lined streets in Shanghai, the rhythmic sound of bicycle wheels and pedals squeaking on a rusty yet functional bicycle fill the quiet of the morning air. At tiny temporary stalls, there is the metallic scraping of a grill as a vendor cleans the griddle for the next customer in line awaiting their breakfast crepe. And, somewhere nearby, the rustle of a bamboo broom as it grazes the sidewalk, clearing the path for the next curious listener to walk by.