Whip lash, motion sickness, jet lag, temporal displacement sickness (okay, made that last one up), these are nothing compared to the Culture Shock of the first few weeks in a new country.
Sounds Abound, Just After Touch Down
Two American friends of mine here in Dalian like to say that if you’ve been abroad for a few months to a year you can write a book, a year or two and you can pen a few articles, anything more and you’ll find it hard to write an essay. Now that I’ve been kicking around China for nearly three years, I hope that’s not true.
My plan to thwart this prophecy is by keeping a good journal. Remembering exactly what those first days and weeks were like is important, and when I look at the pages of my journal the noises of China are what stand out the most.
The sound of the rising and falling tones in the Mandarin language hit my ears like a tidal wave striking the shore. Only I had no levies or infrastructure designed to withstand the onslaught. I couldn’t tell where words began or ended. I had no way of figuring out the sentence patterns in the bird language I heard in the Beijing airport, and I knew only a muddled version of “Hello” to tide me over until language classes could start.
One year would not be enough to master the language. I knew that without a doubt the first night in China on that September 17 in 2011. The guttural retroflexive “r” at the end of many words in the Dongbei (north east) accent, the confusing interchangeable use of shi and si to mean either four or ten, and even the entirely knew phrases for common Mandarin greetings like “Have you eaten?” (normally ni chi fan le ma? But in Dalianese sometimes spoken as, ni dai fan le ma?) would add even more burdens to an already insurmountable task.
When the classes did start, I eavesdropped on every conversation I could. All the time. I still do, to tell you the truth. I’ll be sitting at a restaurant or at Starbucks, and I’ll just listen to people around me. I know it’s rude, but it’s in the name of education. That makes it okay. I looked up the rules.
The Music of Daily Life
The morning after I arrived in China, I discovered that even though there were no farms around for miles, someone had a rooster. And then I learned that fireworks are an acceptable form of declaring to the community that something of note has occurred…even at 6 am.
Fireworks are not relegated to one specific event or holiday in China. Since moving here, I’ve heard them EVERY single day, multipletimes, at all hours. People light them off for weddings, funerals, grand openings, grand closings, construction milestones, and sometimes, just because it’s a Tuesday. Spring Festival is the biggest holiday for Chinese people, and during this week-long celebration one could mistake Dalian for a warzone. At night the skyline is afire with brilliant blasts of colors and sounds, and they DON’T STOP for a week.
Shortly after the rooster crowed in the morning and some fireworks sounded off in the distance, maybe around seven-ish, the public school next to the apartment complex began, what I came to learn, was their morning routine. This sounded like a bunch of nonsense blasted over an external PA system at first, but was really counting in Mandarin so that the students could do their morning calisthenics. I learned to count in Chinese because of that PA system.
A walk down any street with storefronts can have serious repercussions to your hearing. Whereas I was used to having music playing softly in the background of most places of business in the States, the complete reverse in China was quite a shock at first.
Shops will blast pop music into the crowds walking by with large speakers they sit just outside the threshold of their business, hoping to wage some sort of warped psychological warfare on the unsuspecting–and now partially deaf–would-be patrons, all in the guise of commercialism. The music doesn’t necessarily beckon or lure customers so much as it frightens them into submission. The lucky ones are those on the fringes who watch their brothers-in-arms fall to the sensory barrage and turn the corner before it’s too late.
Okay…it’s not that bad. But pretty close. If there are five stores, you can bet there will be five different loudspeakers pumping out Chinese, Korean, or even American pop hits at decibel levels unsafe for the common ear. After a few weeks of shopping in this terrain the shock wares off and your senses adjust. Eventually you begin to only walk around the streets with good taste in music, making a soundtrack out of your jaunt.
Another noise that eventually subsides to the background of your day is the constant honking of car horns. I swear, sometimes it’s like an involuntary muscle for some drivers. If they’ve gone five seconds without pressing it their body takes over and BANG! Drivers here honk so much that I’m surprised pedestrians haven’t mobilized horns and made them pocket-sized for clearing paths along the sidewalks when they’re in a hurry.
When you’re not avoiding the musical assault in front of stores, dodging wild drivers honking their horns, and ducking the falling fireworks debris you might be trying to not make eye contact with the men standing on the corners of shopping centers shouting out their destinations in rapid-fire, auctioneer Mandarin as they try to pick up passengers for their rundown buses that probably shouldn’t be on the road. Almost every time I walk by them they walk a few steps with me until I tell them, no, I’m not going into downtown Dalian today. In other parts of China they’ll be shouting other names, but here it’s always, “Dali Dali Dalian!! Dalian!!”
Pushing their ancient karts around while balancing the tools of their respective trades, older men and women wonder around town chanting mantras that advertise what service they provide. “Mo jian zi lai! Qiang cai dao!” Come sharpen scissors and knives. Even the trash or cardboard collectors call out to people, hoping to make some money by reselling the unwanted refuse. And in the evenings, in neighborhoods and parks all around China is the music and sound of masses of people doing synchronized square dances. This group activity—guangchang tiaowu, square dancing—is open to all. The young and old alike join in on this, and some even get matching sweat suits and outfits made up to feed the feeling of solidarity among the really hardcore and the casual dancer.
A City Soundtrack
On their own, each of these sounds might have a tendency to make your ears bleed, but together…together they’re something else entirely. They’re the sounds of life in a Chinese city, of people and the patterns of their days playing out in an intricately synchronized chaos that sometimes sounds like a symphony. You just need to learn to find the music.