When I hear people screaming, bellowing emotion from their deepest recesses, I assume that something is wrong, terribly, horribly wrong. Throughout Shanghai I have witnessed women hollering at women, men screeching at men, women shouting at animals, their throats raw from the exertion of their horse-like braying. Usually this type of reaction is reserved for when a monster, a heathen of the worst kind, has lit your teacup poodle on fire or relegated your daughter to her safety school. Here in China, though, these moments of raw emotion, the kind that peel the paint from walls and shatter glass, are often followed by…laughter?
What do you make of a woman who, in one moment is so livid her abrasive voice raises the dead and in the next moment is bartering over the price of peaches or holding her child up to pee into a flower pot? How do you take someone like that seriously? The dangerous conclusion to make is that everyone here who is yelling is a fraud, a faker, like the boy who cried wolf. The danger lies in ignoring the noise, blocking out anything over a certain decibel level. While this may be a valid solution to dealing with used car salesmen or Fran Drescher, it isn’t any way to go through life in China. Sure, that bloodcurdling scream to your left may just be a Chinese woman stating that she likes peonies or that autumn is a wonderful time of year. But her scream may also be saying, “The brakes on my scooter don’t work, so if you don’t want one of my handlebars to impale your colon please step to the side.”
In America, and I assume most cultures other than Norway, volume of speech is a helpful clue as to one’s level of intensity. Raising one’s volume indicates a higher level of intensity, while lowering one’s volume indicates a lower level of intensity, a calmness of sorts. This subtle nuance seems to be missing in China as a man can sandblast you with a seemingly furious tirade and simply be asking for the time. Try this with an interpreter sometime. You will be astounded at how irate “My, what a lovely blouse you are wearing” can sound.
My approach so far has been to respond in a preset sequential order, first assuming danger, then expecting rage and finally reacting to a normal human interaction. For example, if I hear shouting behind me I (1) assume that a burning rickshaw is bearing down on me and dive ceremoniously into the shrubs to my right; (2) throw my hands up around my head, protecting my face like a prize fighter in a boxing ring; (3) look in my language reference guide and try to say “Yes, I am lost, thanks for asking,” to the 3-foot tall toothless woman behind me.