inside thoughts on China and beyond

Holiday Noise


As I was dreaming away through a small window of the Waterlelie, a brown pub at the harbor front in the Wieden, I noticed unending floods of thick rain drops forming expanding circles on the lake. Perfect. Rain. That’s me alright. I am on holiday.

Now that was a depry start. Blame it on the weather, because like it or not: weather influences us. Most of us, that is. Not the English. But then, it wasn’t for nothing that someone once said: “there are people and there are the English”.  Take the Olympics. While the Chinese in 2008 bombarded the clouds around Beijing to arrange sunshine for the games and a good image for China, the English did the opposite: they bombarded the audience with additional and artificial rain during the Games opening. And with pride. But that was yesterday. Today saw a new dawn. A new day.

From my lazy garden chair just outside the little cabin, I can see a soft invisible breeze form ripples on the otherwise motionless water surface, breaking the perfect reflection mirroring the Wieden’s famous landscape of reed, willows, water, and more reed. Large clouds with impressive shapes that gave the early Dutch painters their fame, towering over it.  And God saw that it was good.

A complete silence envelopes the world. And in this still sleeping 3-D world, only birds break the spell. But they are part of it. Nature at its best. Swallows chirp as they pick flies from the water. With a sudden loud flapping of wings, a white swan starts walking on water, slowly speeding up while preparing for takeoff. Black-headed gulls fly overhead and a great cormorant is trying to get a suntan with its wings spread out, sitting motionless on the dock. Across the lake I can see the thatched roofs of a few old farm houses, now mostly used as holiday homes. As I said, life at its best.

Moments like these are not impossible in China, but not very likely either. I once had such an experience in Qingdao. Nearly. I got up at 6 on a promising spring morning and could see the sun struggling its way up through the fog that hung thick over the ocean, creating a misty mosaic of shapes and colors. I was ready for a full emersion of nothingness. But it was not meant to be. From the rocks along the walking boulevard, a man was shouting meaningless words across the water. Across the ocean. Was it a scolding tirade against the evil Japs on the other side –“Stay on that side ! and keep away from our islands ! or we’ll teardown another Ito Yakado!”- or  was it just part of his wellness program? I will never know. Women were walking backwards while slapping their back and pulling their cheeks with clicking sounds. Retired Long Marchers with portable shortwave radios cracking out radio plays and Mao speeches. And in fog, sound carries far, very far. Even further when you really don’t want to hear it. Much further, and much louder, believe me! Quietness is just hard to find in China; a rare commodity. Noise seems one of the prime characteristics of the Chinese culture. It makes me wonder. Is it just me?

But then, at 9 o’clock sharp, church bells echo over the water to summon all faithful citizens. It is Sunday, you see. Never ending bells, it seems. In Holland, no village without a church. Farmer Van der Bijl has the key to turn it off but he lives the furthest away. Within minutes, all villagers will wake up. Kids calling for their mum, mums calling for the husbands and husbands trying to hide from it all, wondering when they can ever enjoy a moment of serene peace and quietness. Good morning Holland! The new day has commenced and boats now drill through the lake with a monotone hum and a radio is turned on to hear the latest weather forecast, old songs and the London Olympics. What will a Chinese think of this?

Human noises that boil up nostalgic emotions in me. It’s nearly part of nature. The Chinese family from the local Chinese restaurant -with take-aways for only 5 Euro; and the portions are large!- is now awake too. Why, they wonder, why all that noise? Every week?

Anyway, there are those things I like to do when on holiday. Going to a museum is one of them. Looking at real culture. Feeling part of the enlightened cultural elite, the avant-garde. Until yesterday, that is. First of all, the only museum here is a local museum of history; local history. Some old pots and pans on display. Bummer! But truth be said, it wasn’t that bad, really, and nicely situated in a renovated thatched roofed farm that can only be reached through the back entrance after crossing a narrow bridge. Make sure not to leave through the front door though. Only the deceased go out from there, so the story goes. And with the front door hanging high above the ground, you don’t want to try either.

“This is all from China!” my son yelled. The 89 year old lady in traditional long dark skirt with a large blue apron and a white head cap -herself a living artifact of this museum- looked up from her daily task of baking traditional flensjes. Quite disturbed. From China?! That was a capital offense and I could just see her chase my son any moment now. Out of the front door with him!  Better stay friends with her. “Sorry my dear lady, ” I said, turning my eyes up to the top-right followed by a 360degree turn of each eyeball in the opposite direction, indicating disgust over my son’s misdeed, “iPad generation; what can I say?” But judging her response, I don’t think she’d ever seen an iPad and I was in for half an hour lecture about raising kids and good old days. Better walk on.

“No dad. All I was trying to say is that all these instruments here are the same as what we see the Chinese farmers use.”

“Ah, wooden shoes?”

“No-oh, not the wooden shoes. But look at this saw. And this plow. And the knives and the costumes and look at these pictures of poor people working in the field and look at the mess.”

He was right, of course. It is quite amazing, when you think of it. When we see Chinese farmers reaping their harvest by hand and an ox cart carrying it all away, we feel thrown back in time. Times when farmers were harvesting wheat by hand. Tying it together in sheaves. Pressing oil between 2 mill stones. Weaving baskets from twigs. Even dentists performing on busy market streets or a child crawling on her knees, tied on a rope, pulling her legless dad on a little wheeled board while holding up her begging hands. It’s as if walking into a Pieter Breughel painting, or, on bad days, a Jeroen Bosch.

A sense of nostalgia and maybe even, but better don’t say this aloud, superiority. We tend to forget that as little as 30 or 40 year ago, scenes like this were not all that uncommon across the western world. Suddenly I remember seeing farmers milking their cows by hand. Not many, but still. And that’s the value of a museum. Even a small one like this, with a deadly front door. It puts it all in perspective: the time you live in and the culture you see as yours.

The school section was a turning point for me though. Small student desks with a slide for the pen and a holder for ink. Desks I sat on. Large posters depicting different important moments in history. Other posters of typical Dutch landscapes. Posters I looked at when the teacher told a story, and also when he didn’t. The blackboard with neatly written cursive sentences chalked on it. This is my time, I thought melancholically. A tender emotion that quickly changed into horrifying shock though, for I tell you, seeing all this in a museum is weird, but seeing it in a history museum is right out disturbing. Any moment now I expect to see myself stuffed on a shelf. Dusty and pale. I am not that old. Really, I’m not!

The truth is that lately I do find myself more often than not pondering the past and judging the future by its past. Sentences like “when I was young…” and “I remember…” pop up too much to be healthy. Ask my kids. I can just hear them think: “there he goes again” or “it seems we were born in a wrong age”. For a father in midlife crisis, that’s really the last thing you want to hear.

On a little video that is shown we see once more a serene landscape of pure quietness. Black and white movie with no sound but lots of Charlie Chaplin movements. A small boat is pushed through the narrow channels by a merchant trying to get the attention of the local women. Calling out, again and again. We don’t hear it, but he does seem to be shouting it out. That’s it then, isn’t it? Strange noises always seem louder. The splinter in our brother’s eye is troubling us more than the plank in our own…

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3 responses

  1. All my friends back in London thought I’d be living a peaceful life in China – I think they ought to read this post 🙂

    September 21, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    • Well, feel free to share!

      April 13, 2013 at 12:38 pm

  2. Pingback: Fleeting Freedom | Dutchinaman's Blog