Dear Imaginary Person,
[name redacted] mentioned that you were planning on spending some time in China and asked me to fill you in a bit about what to expect. As I do love the sound of my own voice (clack of my own keyboard?), I am happy to help.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived in China was the noise. Well, no, that’s not quite true. The first thing that struck me was the heat and humidity. I grew up in the Canadian prairies; 30°C is a hot summer day, and 0% humidity is normal. I arrived in Hangzhou on July 9, 2004. It was in the vicinity of 45°C with a relative humidity of sauna%. I had trouble breathing for the first few days.
Once I got used to the weather, though, the first thing I really noticed was how noisy China is. Chinese people will tell you that it’s because China has too many people1 and it’s true that, at least along the heavily developed East coast, there is an awful lot of traffic, construction, and crowding – all of which contribute to the elevated level of ambient noise. The thing is, while I lived for 7 years in Hangzhou, a wealthy city of about 10 million people (many of whom own cars), I currently live in a small city (DongYang) of only 1 million people and I have spent a lot of time in small villages of a few hundred people. They are all noisy. All of them.
I have developed a theory to account for this. The theory is this: Chinese people are loud. They talk loudly, they eat loudly, and they blow their noses loudly (and often without the benefit of a tissue). They watch TV loudly, and they listen to music loudly. I’m still not entirely sure why they are loud, but it isn’t because of too many people. On the contrary; the smaller the village, the louder the villager. Two middle-aged DongYang ladies having a conversation in an otherwise empty room are audible from three buildings away, and their cell phone ringtone can be heard in the next village2. The default volume setting on most televisions here is “distortion”, and the majority of shops in most downtown shopping areas put large PA speakers outside their doors to blast passersby with the latest Japanese and Korean pop super-hits (and Lady Gaga, of course)3.
Don’t let any of this bother you, by the way. You’ll soon develop the ability to tune the majority of it out completely. You might not even notice it as much as I did. Keep in mind that we Canadians are a pretty quiet bunch (3 Chinese people make about as much noise as 30 Canadian prairie-dwellers), so it was a bit of a shock to my system. If you are from a bigger city, or a large family (especially a large Chinese family) you might not notice anything out of the ordinary at all; until Chinese New Year, anyway.
Chinese New Year makes the rest of the year seem like the cozy confines of a library or crypt by comparison. Everyone (and this will include you) who is in China for Chinese New Year makes a video of themselves “reporting from the front lines” of wherever the US is currently dropping bombs. The unrealistic aspect is that the US never drops that many bombs, that steadily, for that long. In the major urban centers they have restrictions on the fireworks and actually enforce them much of the time. In the country side… not so much. This most recent CNY (old-timer speak for Chinese New Year, of course) was our first in DongYang.
In Hangzhou the fireworks go on for two or three days. They are non-stop the whole day leading up to New Year’s Eve, and then peter off towards 3am or so. In Dongyang, we experienced 2 solid weeks of non-stop bombardment. I’m serious. For two weeks there was not a single moment of a single day that we couldn’t hear the explosions of fireworks. Day time, night time; it didn’t matter, stuff was exploding. Fireworks were being set off at the base of our building. We live on the ninth floor. Most fireworks sold in China explode between 8 and 12 stories up, so we had firework sparks hitting our balcony doors pretty regularly. It was insane.
At any rate, I hope none of this has scared you off or made you second guess your plans. I also hope you aren’t a light sleeper. You may want to acclimatize yourself by trying to have a conversation while blow-drying your hair or by hanging out with airplane mechanics while they work. The noise isn’t really a huge problem; it’s just one of the many differences I had to get used to.
1. This is the reason Chinese people will give you for almost any oddity you mention about China. It is almost never the actual reason. China does have a lot of people, but the population density isn't that much greater than in many other places.
2. I'm exaggerating slightly.
3. I'm not exaggerating at all.