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Life in Shenzhen Means Noise
Traveling, and particularly living abroad as expats, teaches us about ourselves and about our own society as much as it does about others. In this entry of Life in China, we’re talking about something which has informed our understanding of ourselves as Americans and Americans as tourists, as well as making a general observation about life in Shenzhen, China, too. Dear Chinese reader, as we’ve stated in our other posts about living in Shenzhen, China, please don’t take offense. We don’t write to put you down or diminish your culture in any way, shape, or form. We write to share insights, since living in China is different from living elsewhere. We want to help others understand what the expat experience in China is like. That said, here we go–our observation is that living in Shenzhen means noise.
Loud Americans…or Not?
You know that stereotype about Americans abroad being loud and obnoxious? Well…no, they’re not. Listen, I don’t know how to phrase this any other way–Chinese people are astonishingly loud. Take for example the following incident as we rode the bus to IKEA here in Shenzhen recently: two middle-aged women clambered into the bus and took seats far from each other, then commenced hollering at each other across the otherwise quiet city bus (the bus fleet here is electric, making them wonderfully subdued things). I don’t mean that they were upset–they were just talking. There was no clear reason for the high volume.
Here’s another example. Our friend Michelle found herself caught between two people conversing on an airport bus. “I sat down, and I couldn’t believe it.” Again, there was no reason for shouting. She literally stuck her fingers in her ears.
Another time, I was one of two teachers in the back of a van on the way to a work visa appointment; the driver and our HR person were up front. They were carrying on a conversation more or less at the top of their lungs–the Canadian teacher and I exchanged glances and he piped up–“Calm down! What’s the big deal?” The response? “Oh, we are just talking.”
Last week, Jenia was on the metro, sitting between two locals. The guy on her right was watching a soccer match on his iPad. The girl on her left was watching Darkest Hour on her phone. Neither one was using headphones, both had the volume set to the max. She had a headache by the time she got off.
When we made our way back from Vietnam in February, we ended up on a bus. It was an overnight journey from Nanning, China to Shenzhen. There was an seven year old (give or take) kid whose mom allowed him to play a video game on her phone all night. He had the volume, this is no exaggeration, all the way up. Everyone was sleeping, or trying to, and this was just allowed and ignored, as it if wasn’t happening. I slept through it for a while, but after waking at some point, I was astonished. Jenia said, “It’s been like that the whole night.” We both considered asking the little guy or his mom to turn it down, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort, considering we were unlikely to get more sleep anyway. Maybe it would have been okay to make the request, though, for people will usually quiet down if you ask them; they simply don’t seem cognizant of their behavior.
School vs Restaurant
At work, I’m prone to ignore the volume of my students when I walk into the room, because teenagers are loud everywhere; besides, they’re quick to quiet down when I request it. But when a fine dining experience on linen tablecloths results in a headache because the other patrons are so loud, that’s not normal. Or rather, we’re not used to that being normal. It’s normal living in Shenzhen, however, and it takes some adjusting to. So hooray for Americans–we’re not the loudest folks in the world after all.
Racket in the Market
It’s common for hawkers with little mobile shops set up on the back of electric trikes to have a loudspeaker hooked up blaring a repeating recorded advertisement about their goods (usually fruits or veggies). This generally occurs in parking lots or on sidewalks in busy areas. In the nearby store Shirble, which is a bit like Walmart, there are sales ladies wearing lapel mics and little speakers, spaced apart here and there, squawking out more advertising. It makes for a chaotic, cacophonous environment. Most Chinese shoppers just ignore it and proceed about their business. You gotta give it to the locals, they’re able to tune out a lot. It’s mighty hard on us foreigners.
Racket on the Mountain, Racket in the Streets
Another time and place it is amazingly loud is…on hiking trails? Yep. What passes for hiking around here in Shenzhen is actually climbing steps up a mountainside, or else walking along the steep winding roads to the top. I’ve been up Tanglang Mountain a couple of times, and it’s hard to believe how many people (including the aged) are carrying bluetooth speakers along, tunes blasting, oblivious of the detrimental effect this has on a pleasant, outdoors experience for others. This also happens on the sidewalks in town regularly.
Conclusions about Cultures
So the conclusions we draw are threefold: First, Americans and American tourists are not half as obnoxious as we thought. Compared to the average group of Chinese people here in Shenzhen, they’re downright quiet. Second, Americans have a fair amount of consideration and awareness of the people around us. This brings us to our final point, which may not be particularly flattering, but as you’ve gathered by now, is true of our experience–Chinese people are loud. This is, of course, a generalization. We’re certainly not always surrounded by people shouting at the top of their lungs or loudspeakers assaulting our eardrums, but it occurs far more frequently than in other places. When it comes down to it, noise is just a fact of life in China, or at least life in Shenzhen. Now, lest you think we’re just hypersensitive, we are definitely not the only ones who notice this as this article on BBC and this discussion on Quora demonstrate. Stay tuned for the next installment in our Life in China series!