Soundtrack of Life in China

I woke up Saturday morning to strange sounds coming from outside.  It sounded like some sort of other-worldly car alarm, as if someone had bumped a UFO in my apartment complex parking lot.  I got up to see what was going on, and was greeted by the man in this video, rather than angry little green men.

I just had to chuckle, watching this man playing with what looked like some sort of Chinese yo-yo.  But as I watched him, I realized that what he was doing was actually pretty calming to me.  Why did it calm me?  Had my short time living in China already changed me?  I imagined the angry protests this yo-yo practitioner would probably get from neighbors if he were playing with such a loud device in the U.S. on a Saturday morning in a crowded apartment complex.  There might be fists thrown or cops called.

But not here.

Not in Chengdu.

In Chengdu, background noise is a part of life that that you come to accept.  We are a city of 14 million, all squeezed into box apartments in tiny little apartment complexes.  There will always be background noise, and you have to come to terms with that.

For example, I have a neighbor on the other side of our apartment who practices his musical instrument daily, sitting on his porch.  Every day he’s out there, playing the suona (sort of a Chinese oboe), the sounds echoing up and down the apartment complex, and it’s brilliant.  Whenever I hear it, I feel like I’m not only living in China, but also in a movie about living in China.  But again, in other places, neighbors would probably be complaining to the landlord about the noise and threatening a lawsuit.

It’s a part of the soundtrack of life here, the good and the bad.   A less delightful example was when our upstairs neighbor was doing some sort of renovation a couple of weeks ago.  I wanted to go and knock him on his head.  Hours and hours of drilling, hammering, stomping around; but I didn’t go knock him on his head, or even on his door.  Why?  Because renovation is  an accepted sound in our close quarters.  People have work to do, and besides, one day I might have some renovation of my own to accomplish, and then my neighbors will have to deal with it, too.

And then there have been the endless fireworks this past week, during the Chinese New Year celebrations: the long rows of firecrackers that made it sound like our neighborhood was being attacked by people with machine guns; the M-80’s playfully tossed into the koi ponds by children; the black widows that my own son loves to detonate; they have all added to the soundtrack of this Chinese experience.

I will work hard to enjoy these extra sounds of life in Chengdu, because each one contributes to my living in a land that is not my own, and they are all so completely unlike the sounds I will hear next year when we find ourselves living in a new place.  There, I will have to adapt to a completely new soundtrack, and if I’ve learned anything in China, it’s that each place has its own sound, and you need to listen and learn to love.

Except for renovation.   Renovation stinks no matter where you live.


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