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A China Aural Fixation

Not so very long ago, I was sitting in a Chinese railway station awaiting my train which, like the first snowfall, the Second Coming and Godot, was taking its sweet old time. Worse still, I was experiencing a throbbing headache.

Then suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker system at a tone that sent aural icepicks through my eardrums: “Miffle babble gribble, mao mao mao, glizzzbo hemmat.”

I strained, along with my fellow travelers, to understand what the announcer was saying. I asked a local man sitting next to me if he understood it, but like me he found it nearly incomprehensible. Nevertheless he was able to catch something to the effect that the train to Miffle was going to be slightly glizzzbo and that passengers should mao mao mao. Meanwhile the buzz and screech of the station’s public address system seemed to announce the opening ceremonies of the Migraine Olympics getting underway in my skull.

But it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t understand just what the heck the announcement was saying that bothered me … no, it was the simple annoying sound of it.  Call it hyper sound sensitivity or Adult A.D.D. but I find it nearly impossible to concentrate when bombarded by things like this.  As I sat and suffered the agonies of the damned, nowhere nearer to my destination, I wished for transportation of another sort, the ability to separate myself from the surrounding mayhem and reach a Zen-like state of calm and objectivity.  Since I arrived in China many years ago, I have, on occasion, nearly reached this out-of-body state of enlightenment, only to be brought crashing down to earth because of some ear-splitting sound that seems unique to China. But I wonder still how such noise can wreak such havoc with me, knocking my choo-choo train of thought clear off its tracks. What’s more, why do I seem to be the only one with an aural fixation here?

I could catalog for you, dear friends, alphabetically and by decibel, the list of obnoxious sounds in this otherwise fair land. Travel north in the winter and listen to the chest-clearing hawk-spit of a Beijing taxi driver. Like Siegfried and Roy pulling a white tiger out of a Ming vase, northerners in China can haul a lung cookie up from the depths of their very soul. Particularly during wintertime when the coal dust hangs like carcinogen curtains, the hills are alive with the sound of mucus and I shiver to my core to hear it.

While one expects that sound systems in older railway stations and airports – many of them seemingly dating back to the Han dynasty – will not be of high quality, it seems fair to assume that those in the brand new train stations and airports dotting the land would be somewhat better. Bad assumption. While an architectural wonder, the Shanghai Pudong airport has a P.A. system that makes the announcer sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher on valium or a flatulent tuba player. The vaulted Tinker Toy ceilings play ping-pong with the sound, further frustrating the already confused traveler with echoed repetitions of garbled phrases.

The sound systems that do work in China work all too well. I am, of course, referring to those found in supermarkets and hypermarkets. The average retail shopping experience here is suffused in music, usually turned up so loud that the speakers buzz. The result is often a comical interaction between shoppers and assistants, both trying to hear each other above the din and, failing that, resorting to hand motions worthy of Marcel Marceau at a liturgical dance conference. The other day my pantomime of “where is your organic ginger?” to a shop assistant at the local market gathered quite a crowd (and, if my agent can pull it off, I will be appearing at several other local supermarkets in the Puxi area in the coming months … stay tuned for dates and times).

Many foreigners have difficulty grasping the melody of the Chinese language, the odd phonemes and tones hitting our eardrums at uncomfortable trajectories. I have been able to appreciate only some of the music of the Chinese language – the soft, womanly lisp of Suzhou natives, for example, or the marbled mumbles of the Heilongjiang industrial worker. However, here in my beloved city of Shanghai, the fingernails-on-a-blackboard dissonance a group of 53 year-old women speaking the local dialect is enough to drive me around the bend. First of all, this model of Shanghai citizen does not seem to come equipped with a volume control and yet has the Super Multi-Tasking chip installed, enabling the group of them to all talk at the same time, in escalating volume levels. Most disturbing is when a group of these ladies are working as shop assistants in the aforementioned retail environment and are in vociferous competition with the store’s sound system. The Wall of Sound this forms makes front row seats at a Screaming Death Monkeys heavy metal concert seem like an afternoon society tea at the local library.

But if I were to be brutally honest, the most unsettling sound of all in China, to my ears, is the complaining foreigner rehashing the litany of improvements they would introduce: the tourist on public sanitation; the expat commuter on traffic; members of the current US administration on currency control. If the chorus singing from the ‘What China Needs Is … ‘ hymnbook is bothersome to my ears, imagine what it must do to those of our hosts. So as for me?  Guilty as charged. I hope that only the most graceful and forgiving of them are reading this post.

Fast Train Comin’

Fast Train Comin’

Nanjing Railway Station

Nanjing Railway Station

I took the train the other day, something I haven’t done for a while.  Now, usually I am a cynical git and try to find the ridiculous in everything – the blog must be fed, after all – but I am happy to report that I was initially quite impressed. First of all, the train service was excellent – my train from Shanghai to Nanjing departed right on time and, while driving would take over 4 hours, the train took just over an hour, traveling at speeds up to 320 km/hour (I apologize to my American friends … I am unable to convert that to miles or rods or els, whatever antiquated system of measurement you are using back there these days).  The seats were roomy enough for the average foreigner’s derrière, they offered complimentary beverages and I had a strong mobile signal the entire way.  I arrived quickly, efficiently and fully hydrated.  The only nod to the antiquated system was the bathrooms with throne-less squattie-potties which, if used, require the thighs of a linebacker to maintain yourself in the train-surfing stance for any period of time.

But (cue Cynical Git) while the train ride was memorable, I was left absolutely flat by the railway stations themselves. China is home to one of the best collections of historical architecture in the world – from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City to the Bund, the list of iconic structures here is nearly endless. And China has certainly not been lacking in the money to invest in rail infrastructure – China’s recent investment in their rail system has rivaled Imelda Marcos’s annual shoe expenditure as they have built about 5 squillion miles of new rail over the last 10 years.  Any burg with more than two stalks of rice and a pig got a brand new, shiny railway station.  However, similar to global airport construction theory, all of China’s new rail stations look similar, occupying an obscenely large plot of land and looking like they’ve been designed by Cavernous Buildings R Us.

The new(ish) Hongqiao Rail station in Shanghai is an excellent example of this aggressive regression towards the architectural mean.  It was built to handle the teaming hoards of Chinese tourists that descended upon Shanghai to attend the Expo in 2010 and, indeed, the station can certainly handle the volume – during its busier moments its looks like a movie made during the pre-CGI days when you actually needed real PEOPLE to make a crowd scene, like the Ten Commandments with less livestock.  Nanjing station is similar, as is Ningbo, Tianjin, Suzhou … the list goes on.

The people making the announcements that boomed through the station either all had the same training at the Charlie Brown’s Teacher School of Public Address or were just playing their trombones through the speaker system – “What??  Did they say ‘the train to Nanjing was leaving on track 5’ or ‘the rain on nanny’s bling is cleaving to black hives’???”  The ceilings vaulted miles above one’s head and the gleaming marble tile below, I’m sure, did not help audio quality. In fact, I think I could hear my own heartbeat echoing around me, a grim reminder of one’s mortality and the broken resolution made a few months ago to get more exercise.

The benches lined up in the waiting hall were nothing short of instruments of torture – after 15 minutes of sitting on the cold metal seats I had lost all feeling below my waist.  I could have wet myself and have been none the wiser for it. During the morning and afternoon rush hours every seat in the place is filled.  On my trip back home to Shanghai from Nanjing I was surrounded by 5 sleeping peasants, two of whom had found a comfy pillow on both of my shoulders. While I appreciated being treated as one of the family, I would have liked a more expanded use of my arms.

Many of the older train stations in the US and Europe are quite memorable, uniquely designed and built to withstand many years of human lives passing through their halls.  I can well remember the details of many of the train stations I’ve been in over the years and Grand Central, Stockholm Station, Paddington and the German-designed Tianjin station are all memorable, in their own way.  Today’s Chinese train stations are like an Animal Planet special on penguins – its memorable ONLY because of the immense banality of its sameness (and I don’t care what biologists say … penguin mothers can’t tell their offspring from each other either and how would a biologist know that they were always returning to the right one anyway. C’mon!).

I’m sure its quite bourgeois of me to lament the cultural demise of the old rail stations in China, particularly when that culture was infested with vermin of all kinds and whose congested plumbing made it smell like the outhouse at summer camp. There is something oddly comforting in the sameness of China’s new railway stations, like walking up to a KFC and knowing that, even though you are going to be eating crispy-coated-cardboard, its the same cardboard that you got the last 47 times you went there.

So I guess I will choose to suck it up, enjoy the quick train rides and endure the station waiting halls.  I’ll just have to set my alarm to lumber to the toilet every half hour … ’cause I still can’t feel ANYTHING down there!