When I first moved to China, the trumpeting of carhorns was nonstop obvious. Hot summer days I’d sit in the office thirteen floors above the city streets and, through the open windows, an incessant yawling of horns – of taxis, cars, motorcycles, buses – would ascend and invade.
I’d talk about how loud it was and how it never ended, how back home, in Ireland, it wasn’t like that.
Two years later, however, and I’ve gotten used to it. The traffic-noise outside my apartment in Jade City. The jackhammers breaking stone on the Second Ring Road. The bulldozers. The music streaming at earsplitting decibels from clothes shops. At least consciously none of that bothers me anymore.
I think I’ve figured out why.
One morning, waiting outside the train-station, an American friend began to complain about the traffic noise. “Why don’t they just stop!” she yelled.
Whispering to me, another friend said, “The locals don’t seem bothered by it.”
I began to pay more attention to China’s various sounds, plus the local people’s involvement in and reaction to those sounds. In Jiuzhaigou National Park, a valley of tranquil multicoloured lakes and ancient trees, the tourists roar at the top of their lungs and are happy. In hole in the wall noodle joints, the customers slurp without restraint their noodles and soup and are satisfied. On the streets some children scream and shout and nobody tells them to keep it down. Restaurants are an exuberant cacophony of chopsticks and fuwuyuan! and little clinked glasses of baijiu.
Compared to where I’m from, noise is tolerated – celebrated, even – in China.
And uncontested number one on the noise charts is Spring Festival when, on New Year’s Eve, in every city and every village, millions of firecrackers are lit, exploding across this big country like thunderclaps, like the sounds of war.
I’ve thought about this, about the firecrackers, and in particular about the origins of Spring Festival and how within its mythical origins is a tentative reason for China’s tolerance of noise. According to legend, and once upon a time, a mythical beast called Nian would come on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops and even villagers, especially children. Among other things, people used firecrackers to frighten away Nian.
Is this myth a possible explanation for the tolerance of noise in China?
Perhaps, because of the Spring Festival legend, buried way deep in the collective unconscious of Chinese people is a synthesis of noise and positive outcome. Down here, in the collective unconscious, where symbols are king, noise is explained as a symbol of safety from danger, something to be celebrated. Perhaps this is why most people at least seem not to mind the raging blaring noises of the city.
Scaring the monsters away, is why it’s tolerated.
What you begin to understand about cultural differences is that they are rooted in symbols and their interpretation. An object, an act, an event, a quality, a relation – all of these can in our brains become a symbol. And here’s the thing: using the received culture patterns I was brought up with in Ireland to understand the abundance and tolerance of noise in China results in little but confusion, intolerance and frustration.
Last week I wrote an email to a friend. I told him, “I never before thought I’d excited by the sound of bulldozers and jackhammers.”
Perhaps, over the course of two years in China, associations between noise and happiness have been created along my neural pathways. Perhaps my brain is changing.