6:30AM: whether a day I have to get up early or not I am awakened by the women from the OTW community who come on campus and into the housing area to clean it up. They chatter like magpies as they unlock their metal carts, chains clanking hollowly, and disperse to their individual areas of responsibility. My neighbors are getting ready for and then leaving for work. Just outside my bedroom window, in the parking lot a man coughs up the effects of last night’s cigarettes, expelling the ravages from his lungs in a none too quiet gargling and spitting routine. With just a small parking lot outside my building, drivers are having to get creative in stowing their cars for the night. Sometimes they block each other in and a barrage of angry cussing, punctuated by honking horns will ensue.
My apartment complex has been slowly filling up over the past few months. In my building, in my stairwell I now have neighbors on the 5th and 6th floor. I can hear them as they clomp or clatter downstairs, depending on whether it is a man or a woman doing the descending. Women tend to wear fashionable footwear – heels, mostly. Men, with their more solid shoes have a more resonant tread. Keys jingle. Sometimes, someone will knock something metal, maybe their hot water thermos against the iron hand railings. The echo reverberates up and down the stairwell. Thanks to concrete construction, every sound carries.
I have neighbors on the first floor in the stairwell next to mine. We share a wall between bathroom and bedroom. I can’t hear distinctly what they are doing, but I can’t miss the fact that they are up and doing. Toilet flushing and taps running indicate that they too are getting started on their day.
If I don’t have to teach that morning, I usually manage to get back to sleep.
9AM: I wake up refreshed, thinking about how to organize my day. I’ve gotten in the habit of sitting up in bed, doing gentle stretching exercises. On this laminate-over-concrete floor I really can’t exercise safely. The floor itself is still too cold and concrete has no give. I might end up injuring myself. Exercising in bed is the perfect alternative. But for about an inch of foam, it is nothing but a board, covered in fancy horsehair quilting. Perfect for exercising. As I count out my reps, clatter from the offices one building over waft in, trying to distract me. I’m used to the office noises; they’ve been there almost as long as I have.
So have construction noises. On the other side of the OTW community a new living park is under construction. In the distance I can hear the repeated thumping of a dirt compactor, the occasional whine of a grinder against metal and large trucks rumbling into the site, and then growling back out, their load dispensed. Work goes on twenty four hours a day. Construction sounds are so monotonous, so repetitive and so common they have become ubiquitous.
From 10AM till about 11, save for that constant backdrop, all is quiet and all is well. From 11:30 on, I can hear the sound of cleavers hitting cutting boards as people start preparing their midday meal. Shortly thereafter come the sounds of metal – woks coming out of cabinets, being rinsed off and put on iron gas burners. Scraping sounds, frying smells. Mostly good, but sometimes somebody will fry a fish. I tend to lose my appetite on ‘fish days’. After lunch and wash up, denoted by clattering crockery and splashing water, a rest period. Uncanny silence permeates. Even construction noises are stilled for the noon break.
There is no doubt I am now a part of a community. That is to say: I live in a community but, being a foreigner I am not exactly a part of things. I hear a lot and see a lot. I don’t see even the elderly going out for a walk during noon rest time. It seems everyone is down for the count.
During lunchtime it is difficult to do anything on the Internet. Most everyone here has a wireless connection. We all broadcast on the same band, clogging the network. Only after everyone returns to work at 1:30PM, I am again able to surf the ‘Net. Following a flurry of voices, engines and footfalls on the pavement as everyone reverts to money making status, again that deep silence, underscored by the rhythmic thump of machinery in the distance. Sometimes I am lulled to sleepiness. Usually I resist napping.
My next door neighbor one stairwell over likes to wash clothes during that time. She washes her clothes in the bathroom. I can hear the water draining as she repeatedly dumps the contents of her washtub out, and then I hear water whistling through the pipes as she fills it again. I know when she is wringing her clothes out: I can hear the water patter down. From the sounds I deduce she washes her clothes by hand. Nearly every day is laundry day for her.
4PM: people start coming home, bearing small plastic bags with crowns of vegetables peeking out. Soon will come the sounds of chopping and rinsing. They are harder to distinguish this time because children are returning home from school. Freed from the tyranny of education and basking in the great outdoors, they give their liberty free rein: shouting, running, playing. Some are interrogated by their parents and grandparents. Those sedately pace next to their elders. On the other side of the housing area, at the basketball courts enthusiastic spectators shout ‘Jia You! Jia You! (gee-ah Ee-yo)’ – ‘Go on! Go on!’ There must be a game going on.
Between 4:30 and 5:00PM. The office workers leave. Those that live offsite hurry for the shuttle buses that will take them into town while those that live in the complex wend their way home. The bulk of the community folk arrive. Children set about their homework. I can hear mothers admonish them to stay on task. Chairs scrape floors as the little ones settle in and apply themselves. Cars come and they go. Doors slam, music plays, engines rev. We exchange the cars of the day workers for the cars of those that live here. Sometimes a car alarm will go off. People don’t necessarily park their cars close to where they live so the alarm keeps blatting with nobody to shut it off. Amidst all the other sounds, this one is particularly irritating.
During this time I start rousing out of my afternoon stupor. Even though I usually don’t nap, these quiet afternoons put me almost a twilight state, like a dimly lit stage waiting for the actors to bring it to life. Lounging on the couch, I see a neighborhood cat trespass onto my living room balcony. Mr. Orange Tomkitty must think something in my house smells enticing. Kept out by the screen, he rubs up against my partially open door and meows. A passing maintenance man on a bicycle inadvertently frightens him away.
Now looking out my kitchen window, waiting for the kettle to boil I see grandmothers toting their charges’ book bags while the young ones scamper about. I start getting hungry. So is everyone else.
Between 5:30 and 6:30, nothing but the clatter of crockery and the clicking of chopsticks. Again construction noise is stilled during food break. Every once in a while a youth from the OTW community will come through, dribbling a basketball. That hollow thunking provides interlude noise for evening’s doings.
6:30PM: a child screams as though tortured. Walking up the main avenue that travels between buildings the length of the housing area, I hear her first from my kitchen window, and then an amplification as her cries are chambered between edifices. The sound then comes from the living room side of the apartment and travels, hauntingly, till she reaches home. Interspersed among her wails an adult voice intones. Whatever that adult is saying seems to send her to ever greater paroxysms of agony. For 5 minutes or so we are treated to the sounds of this child, screaming and crying. You can almost set your watch by her.
I’m not sure I wanted to get this intimately familiar with Chinese community living. For the longest time I harbored this vision of harmonious cohabitation. Everyone is polite. Everyone gets along. Children are revered and never, ever tortured or abused.
TO BE CONTINUED…