who needs soaps?

June 15th, 2008

Opening up the windows for the warmer months was a good thing- and one thing I’m going to miss about this apartment (we’ve been promised a bigger place, but the bigger place in question is “further in” the building (we’re in that old, barracks-style long with half a dozen entrance ways to half a dozen stairwells isolated from each other style of apartment block) and therefore overlooks only the campus’ west zone to the south and our own estate to the north, and neither the apartment complex nor slum to the west and northwest)- and one reason, apart from the fresher, ahem, ‘air’, is the noise.

Odd as that may sound, a certain amount of noise from the neighbours goes a long, long way to making you feel at home. And it saves time spent sat in front of the idiot box watching bullshit soaps. In certain respects, real life beats fiction every time.

This morning it was a bunch of people fighting. It sounded like a family, one of those really huge family disputes that drags the whole neighbourhood in whether the neighbours like it or not. I’m sure I heard a woman calling her opponent a ‘stupid cunt’- and other kinds of the female orifice in question, just to be sure she got her point across- and swearing till the sailors at Tanggu were blue in the face that she “wouldn’t come down”. Come down from what, I don’t know. The big problem with this apartment in the warmer months is that views of all the “action” is so effectively obscured by all the tree leaves. In the winter, the view is fine, but having to keep the windows closed to avoid hypothermia in our inadequately heated apartment (and before anybody down south mouths off about weak bloody northerners and how they don’t get any kind of central heating where they live: I know. I’ve dealt with that. Heating or no heating, unless you’re on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau it still gets colder here than you dreamt of) cut us off from the action. I mean, with the windows closed, I feel so isolated I might as well be in one of those ridiculous segregated compounds so many schools maintain for their foreign teachers. What’s the point of living somewhere if you’re going to be completely cut off from the community you live in?

And then from where I sit typing this, I can’t here where the noise is coming from. Or at least, I can hear whether the noise is coming from inside our apartment, “inside our stairwell” (from the stairwell or any of the apartments it serves, in other words) or “over the fence”- from the apartment complex and slum on the other side of the wall. Oddly enough, noise from inside our complex but outside our stairwell never gets in to our apartment- much like China Unicom signals.

So this afternoon, after we got back  from lunch, I heard a lot of glass being smashed up and men shouting- but not necessarily in an angry or agitated kind of way. Curious, I wanted to find out what was going on. The noise was clearly coming from outside- the apartment complex or the slum. Sitting here in front of the computer, I couldn’t hear where, exactly, the noise was coming from. So I went out to the balcony, opened the fly-screen, and stuck my head out. That is the only way to figure out what is going on outside. But with all the trees covered in leaves, all I could do was hear that the glass-smashing was happening in the courtyard of the apartment complex next door. Couldn’t see the people doing the smashing at all. I could see the tail-end of a truck that seemed to be parked right next to the glass-smashing, but that was it. Then I saw a worker in a yellow, plastic hard-hat walking towards the glass-smashing calling out something to who I assume was his colleague, but, as is always the case, regardless of language, when you listen in on conversations of a work-related nature between people whose professions, trades or at least occupations are entirely different from your own, I had no idea what he was on about.

Well, there have been workers hanging around there the last few days. Literally. Mostly they’ve been suspended from ropes tied to the rooves of the buildings, sitting on platforms of one- and two-man size giving the buildings a fresh lick of paint, presumably sprucing things up for the Olympics and the vast hordes of tourists the world’s largest marketing exercise is supposed to bring. And yes, it does seem utterly absurd- I mean, what kind of tourist- other than anybody genetically related to myself or any of my colleagues, of course- would come to this corner of Beijing? Sure, Panjiayuan is nearby, but you’d have to really willfully get lost to wind up here. But the Olympic badminton and artistic gymnastics competitions will be held on our campus in a brand spanking new gymnasium on the southeast corner of our campus. So this painting, along with the new, “ancient China style” wall along the southern edge of the wasteland just south of that apartment complex, does make a kind of sense.

One has to wonder, though, what, if anything, has been planned for the older campus buildings. I mean, all of my classes this semester have been in one of the original campus buildings, built, I presume, in the late ’50s for the university to open in 1960. Apart from new, strict, security measures about who may or may not enter the campus (and this afternoon’s experience, when lzh and I came home separately- me with an ID card to allow me on campus, her without (we don’t live on campus, but we have a shortcut through campus)- suggests that they may not be as strict as they should), nothing has been done, other than the construction and landscaping around the Olympic gymnasium.

But it seems to be my fate to never see the action. I remember the summer just after SARS, when I was still living on the tenth floor of a high-rise just opposite BeiGongDa’s south gate, a fight broke out just outside my building. I ran into the spare room and open the window to see what was going on, but all I could see was a whole bunch of people standing around something that just happened to be directly under a tree. Didn’t matter what I did or where I moved, unless I went outside, I wasn’t going to be able to see what was going on. And fights are the kind of thing that can easily have broken up and disappeared without trace by the time you’ve grabbed your keys, put your shoes on, ran down ten flights of stairs (I only took the lift down when I had a shitload of stuff to carry, and even so, running down ten flights of stairs is generally faster than taking the lift), out the main door, and around two corners. Then I saw somebody run away from what was happening under the tree, then two or three minutes later run back with two cops in tow. Then somebody was hauled away by the cops, and that was that.

And, you know, I’m not sure I’d be able to handle a move back to New Zealand. Thinking about such a thing, naturally, I’m more worried about my wife’s inevitably culture-shock. A short trip to NZ would be fine for her, but I’m a long, long way from convinced she’d be happy to settle there. Fair enough, too. I mean, as much as I love my own country and as proud as I am of the culture that raised me, I’m still somewhat less than convinced I’d want to actually reside there for the rest of my life. China, despite or perhaps because of, or despite and because of all its problems, has been and continues to be very good to me. But last time I was in NZ it was so quiet. The differences, really, are of degree- degree of closeness, degree of space, degree of whatever. In fact, NZ does have the same sort of community as China, it’s just done differently, with a lot more space for each person and between families. The question, of course, is whether we can adapt to that quietness. For now, the noise of China is good.

4 Responses to “who needs soaps?”

  1. Jeremiah Says:

    We’ve got a great view of the Beixinqiao Police Sub-station from our window. Any given Saturday night in the summertime, there is sure to be some action out front. People take all sorts of petty grievances to the station…we joke that it’s like having China’s version of the Jerry Springer Show, only live and in person.

  2. wangbo Says:

    You’ve definitely got it better than us. Perhaps you could even make a little extra cash over the summer selling ring-side tickets?

  3. Kim Says:

    My neighbourhood here is very quiet. Too quiet! When I lived in Budapest there was a madwoman on the floor beneath us who would swear at her husband very loudly for hours. She called him every name under the sun and a few more. My cussing in Hungarian is shockingly good as a result :)

  4. wangbo Says:

    Sadly we have a few too many foreign teachers in this building to provide such entertainment- there is a shocking lack for Hungarian language instruction in Beijing! I make up for it with frequent trips out to Yanqing, and my wife compensates for what I learn from her family by complaining to her friends here in Beijing about how I learn every bloody swear word that ever escapes her mother’s lips.