Someone in the neighborhood is learning “Auld Lang Syne.” I was on my porch reading late on a warm afternoon this week when I heard those wistful strains that, to a Westerner, mean only one thing: New Year’s Eve. The song was being played on a stringed instrument – maybe a pipa, maybe an erhu, maybe even a violin – well but not perfectly, over and over again, for about half an hour before the musician changed his tune. Given the time of day, I suspect it was an after-school practice session, parentally enforced.
When I first visited China 25 years ago, two women in my tour group brought along a brand-new gadget, a miniature cassette tape recorder, so they could take home not just the sights but also the sounds of a country that was, to Americans then, exotic and unknown. The rest of us kicked ourselves: why hadn’t we thought of that? Never mind that I was carrying every piece of camera equipment known to mankind, including two 35-millimeter Minolta camera bodies, one to shoot black-and-white to go with my stories for The Boston Globe, one for color slides. Those mini-cassettes are now, I believe, as extinct as the slides, replaced by tiny digital recorders. I didn’t bring one of those on this trip, either. My laptop does have a built-in microphone; so far, though, I’ve used it only to record two Australian friends for my students, who are curious about the accent but can understand barely a word of it. The mic won’t pick up “Auld Lang Syne,” or the cuckoo clock I often hear outside my window, which happens to be a real, live cuckoo.
So I’ll carry home the sounds of China in my head. They’re not all as soothing as “Auld Lang Syne” – for instance, “the Chinese salute,” which I still hear more often than I’d like, i.e., never. (See Practicalities, March 16.) Or the cries of the “little emperors” in neighboring apartments, reminding me of one reason I opted not to have any, but making me feel like part of the family. Or the little noises in my apartment: the all-night dripping in the drain of the toilet/shower; the piercing tone of the intercom that won’t stop unless I keep the handset off the hook; the occasional eight sets of three electronic beeps each, the source and meaning of which I have yet to identify – the water heater, maybe? Or the loudspeaker atop a pole near North Gate, which every now and then blasts about 30 seconds of music and announcements. Like the colorful billboards on the other side of the gate, they seem a throwback to the days of Mao suits and old-style Communism — exhortations to the masses to get with the program — but are now probably commercial advertisements. “How is that different from all the music we’re blasted with in New York these days?” Pam asks. Maybe it’s not, but back home, the music doesn’t make me jump to attention.
There’s the cacophony of car and motorcycle horns. It’s considered a courtesy here for drivers to honk at every motorist or pedestrian in their view, to let them know they’re coming; it’s the first thing the Chinese are taught in driver ed, says another foreign teacher who’s been here longer than I and knows about such things. Sidewalks on campus can be so congested that people tend to walk in the roadway. Some streets, like Restaurant Row and the one that connects it to North Gate, have no sidewalks as we know them and are lined to the edge with vendors’ carts. So walking on the street is a constant slalom, punctuated by jumps when you’re startled by those horns from cars and motorbikes coming up from behind a little too close and a little too fast, like Vespas sneaking up behind you on the sidewalks of Florence.
There are softer sounds, too: the bullhorns I sometimes hear in the distance at various times of day, a man’s voice musically chanting five syllables that I guessed might be the Muslim call to prayer but Pam thinks are a knife sharpener advertising. The nonstop bounces from a dozen basketball courts adjacent to the garden at the Foreign Studies Building as I read at lunchtime. The frequent heavy rains on the roof over my head, a sound that has lulled me ever since I was a child sleeping under a sloping rafter, as long as I don’t have to go out. The Chinese pop songs that waft through the neighborhood all day, sometimes as early as 7:15 a.m., possibly from the construction site next door.
And then there is the music of the Chinese language. It’s a different music from ours, one that sometimes assaults Western ears like 12-tone bursting into a Mahlerian world; at times, depending on the speaker’s volume and proximity (and the Chinese tend to be loud, except in class), it can sound staccato, peremptory and harsh. “English has rhythm,” I often tell my students when working on pronunciation. “Chinese has tone.” Four tones, to be exact, and which one is applied to what combination of consonants and vowels determines exactly what the word is. At this point, I’m far from skilled at distinguishing one tone from another, and even worse at reproducing them. Yet a certain satisfaction comes from hearing a little emperor on the street cry “Ba ba!” and understanding that he is calling for his daddy.
Finally, and most joyfully, there is the pop-pop-pop! of fireworks, at any moment of the day or night. The Chinese invented them and still seize on any excuse to set them off: birth, death, marriage, holidays, the opening of a new business (look for the red carpet of residue out front the next day), the opening of a new semester, the close of the two-week Lunar New Year festival. Sometimes it’s just the noise of firecrackers, sometimes a full display of color in the sky, even in daylight. The pop-pop-pop! is a signal to look up and join the celebration, even if you don’t know just what it is.
Americans love fireworks, too, but tend to save them for special occasions, like Fourth of July, and then we go all out with mammoth public spectacles. As I told my “Cultural Backgrounds” class, John Adams wrote to Abigail that fireworks were part of his vision for happy returns of Independence Day before the ink on the Declaration was even dry. This year, I’ll be spending Fourth of July in Chongqing, where I board my Yangtze cruise the next morning. The Chinese may not celebrate American independence, though they’ve picked up Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But one thing I can be sure of: somewhere in that city of 32 million, there will be fireworks that night.