Overheard in Xintang Town

Despite its rustic trappings, small population, and relative geographic isolation, the auricular environment of Xintang Township — in terms of actual decibel-output — often rivals that of the bustling streets of its more eminent megalopolis-cousins: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, etc. Were such things measured on a per capita basis, Xintang would almost certainly boast some of the world’s loudest denizens.

How is it that a quaint town of 10,000 people nestled between a gently flowing river and a picturesque swath of verdant farmland in the Chinese heartland could produce so much noise? What sort of commotion could farmers in rural Hunan possibly be responsible for? Well, for starters: fireworks. Ornamental explosives of every type and kind are a more or less constant affair here at Ouyang Yu Middle School. As I’m writing this, I hear in the distance the artillery-esque rumblings of explosions echoing around the valley. It is 11:10 am. I suppose this makes some tenuous bit of sense seeing as Hunan province is the ancestral birthplace of the firework; but the sheer volume of explosives detonated here defies reason. The only thing that would drive me personally to detonate that many fireworks would be pyromania or boredom or both. On any given day one might hear the blasting report of those strung-together popping firecrackers, or the shrill whine of the mortar-launched shrieking ones, or the dull thuds of roman candles, or the sharp crack of cherry bombs — usually lit in one’s hand and hucked into oblivion — or any combination of those.

I haven’t the slightest idea what could possibly merit the discharge of so much ordinance. The oddest thing is that they are rarely, if ever, detonated at night. The fireworks seem to be detonated simply for the joy of blowing things up — the beauty of the light they emit drowned out by the sun. Today, for example, there is no obvious reason one would feel compelled to blow up anything; other than being Teacher’s Day, it seems wholly unremarkable. Nevertheless, someone outside our building lit a string of firecrackers that popped off one after another like a machine gun for a full ninety seconds. On my run this afternoon through the farm-lined valley that stretches off the southeast corner of campus about five miles down to the river, I heard continually the distant rumblings of explosives being lit off. Now it’s dusk and I’ve just gotten home and still, off in the distance, boom, boom, boom, they go.

Yesterday part of the mystery was solved. We were “welcomed” (read: compelled) to join a school assembly during which at the beginning and end they played the national anthem on loudspeakers. Both times, while the students and staff stood at respectful attention, those same popping machine-gun fireworks were lit. They drowned out the music completely. It was truly a sight to behold: well over two thousand students massed out before us, Kalli, myself, and the school leaders standing front-and-center facing them, the rest of the staff standing behind us, off about twenty yards in front of us to the right a dozen of what I assume to be the Prettiest Girls in the county stood at attention in matching red Qipaos, holding bouquets of flowers to be later presented to distinguished teachers, and all the while the blasting report of the fireworks, BAMBAMBAM! One after another they exploded until they finally subsided, leaving thick plumes of white smoke to billow upwards as the music, now audible again, swelled on.

Besides fireworks, this being a middle school and all, there’s band practice. Our apartment is about a stone’s throw from the music buildings. Many of our mornings are punctuated with the rumbling staccato of the marching band’s monotone dirge and the BLAM BLAM BLAM of the crashing cymbals. There’s like a tuba or trumpet or something that just seems to blast one note over the cymbals: bweeeeeeeeeeet! I can’t tell exactly when band practice is. We’ve woken up to the dread noise of crashing cymbals as early as 6:30 am and been lulled into sleepiness by it as late as 9:00 pm. At night there’s also dance practice in the building next to ours. I see them now: pirouetting and hopping about as their instructor yells “yi, er san si wu liu qi ba! Er, er, san, si, wu, liu, ba!” (One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Two, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight)! Partner all of this with the near constant choruses of men and women shouting encouragement with loudspeakers to children who run and chant, the cicadas who haven’t gotten the memo that it is now autumn and time for them to shut up, the beeping of scooter horns, and the dozens of students that excitedly greet us every time we emerge from our apartment in their stilted but charming English, and you’ve got a world of sound completely unto its own.

“Hello Teacher!”

All of this will no doubt mold our sleeping patterns to more closely match those of the locals. Although I’m still a long way from being used to waking up at 5:50 am, a few more weeks of pre-sunrise cymbal serenading, the near constant drumming of explosives, the music that they play when nap time ends and before morning classes begin, and the constant and gleeful salutations from dozens and dozens of students will certainly exact their toll. Who knows, I might even start to find it comforting.