Thursday, April 2, 2015

White Noise

White noise. Every city has it. And each city is unique unto it's texture, the feel of the sound pulsing from the street. 

San Jose, California resonates with buzzing aircraft and the dull roar of traffic from the 101, along with a mingling of chittering squirrels and crows squawking. San Francisco has clanking trolleys and sea gull cries, while Sacramento has a muted, mean sound, like a draw bridge raised manually, a low rumble punctuated with cogs setting before being drawn out to set again.

I have always been aware of this phenomenon. Strange, you might say, because I am a person with low hearing capacity. I was born with, among other things, a deformed or congealed right ear. I lack the sound grabbing part known as ear lobes as well as an entry method,  the ear canal. My left ear is ok but the ear canal is much smaller than normal. My parents did what they could, even going to great lengths to reconstruct my inner ear on the right side. The no canal thing mucked up that operation. Irony is thick because the reconstruction work inside was terrifically successful, but the canal work failed twice. Great receiver, no wire.

When I first came to Zhongshan one of my most vivid memories, other than how beautiful the women were, was the sheer magnitude of it's white noise. I sat rooftop of the community where Capital Language School had stationed me and I listened. The most obvious sound emanating from down below was honking horns. Even after midnight the air would be shattered by some impatient driver,  rushing nowhere for no other reason other than he, or she, was the emperor of the moment and those before them should give way to their Excellency.

The next punctuation in the night sky would have to be the recyclers with their rhythm of ringing metal. The ding, ding, ding of improvised clapper to improvised bell, ringing in a slow doppler as they pedaled past the closing restaurants and hair salons. The true white noise emerges in the silences between. Voices. Uncountable and indistinguishable, rising and falling like surf at the sea. Sometimes a single person's laughter brings on the high tide and for a while they eclipse even the impatient drivers and weary recyclers.

This year, after a disastrous class with a couple of exceptional students, who unfortunately were what I classify as 'soft speakers,' I decided I needed to handle this issue of my poor hearing. The obvious solution was amplified hearing devices; hearing aids. Except I can't have the plural since my reconstructed and fully functional right side lacks both a canal and lobes to hold the device in that side. So, a single device, positioned in my left ear, operating on its own to deliver sound waves to my eager brain.

The current generation has probably never experienced single-speaker radio or TV broadcasts so they have little to go on when I say my audio experience has literally been monotone. All sound coming though a single receptor creates a range of issues all by itself. Imagine sound without triangulation. Triangulation is what your brain does automatically with the sound it gets from two, equidistant receivers. It essentially clues you into where the sound is coming from, it lets you find the source. Important, for example, when a sabre-tooth tiger is bearing down on you from the left! A single hearing aid provides no triangulation.

I had actually purchased a hearing device in Zhongshan years ago. It was an unmitigated disaster. The technicians molding the device did such a horrid job that the simple act of smiling would produce a feedback squeal even those around me could hear. If I were chewing food, the feedback would keep count of the number of times I bit down. Finally I took to removing the device whenever I didn't need to hear anything specifically, and of course I lost the hearing aid. 5,000 RMB spent on squeals and the occasional amplified discourse. I figured I could go back to lip reading.

This time I figure there would be no expense spared. I would find and purchase the best. This is tough in China where the best may be at best, a copy. My research led me to Phonak, a Swiss company operating in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau. The offices in Hong Kong were impossible to locate, the offices in Guangzhou were mired in the city center, so I decided to go with the Macau branch. The new E-train can get me to Zhuhai GongBei in a matter of minutes, the border crossing, while a pain in the ass, was doable, and the number seventeen bus would drop me practically at the doorstep of the Phonak people.

It was expensive. 12,000 HKD after discount expensive. The doe-eyed technician, Cammy,  spoke some English, and working together we got the right audio mix programmed in. The molding technicians, through Cammy, explained that my past issue with feedback squeal had been due to a poorly shaped device and that they would make sure this was not an issue with my new device. And all-in-all they did a good job. Once again I was tapped into the world audio sensation.

My current home is in GangKou. So named after the fact that it holds within it's township several important rivers and harbors that connect Guangdong to the world. Just out my balcony lies two rivers in an X formation, with my community in the inside peak of the X. The two rivers are not major estuaries, nor are they 'stinky' rivers of flowing excrement. But there is a low bridge constructed in typical Chinese fashion where the transition from street to bridge is anything but smooth. This means the white noise I experience now, every night and day, is subjected to the abrupt thunk of tires on changing surfaces.

Being dual-riverside means I get twice the traffic of loud, diesel powered sampans cruising past on mysterious missions at all hours of the night. Being in this particular community, which forbids pets of any type, I get serenaded by multiple dogs howling at lanterns they mistake as the red moon. The voices are here too. Sometimes a soft rumble, other times a party of raucous dialog erupting from God knows where. There are nice sounds too. My morning alarm clock consists of birdsong from the garden below and of course the newest sound sensation, my own family wakening. Childish voices, laughter and arguments and Mom's intervention.

White noise. It can pinpoint where you are down to the city and season,  if the listener is trained well enough. It can also illustrate a person's location in their own life journey. Sounds in the distance can become sounds nearby and voices indistinct can become voices that require your attention. As in your wife, your children, your life; no longer white noise but the sound you make as you join the cacophony.