Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Knocks and Noises

There is a knock in the night. Its sound is sudden and unexpected but not aggressive nor energetically angry as it echoes metallicly through the double doors of my apartment. I hear it in wonder and unknowing as I’m pulled back from somewhere else.

I had been connected to the net, speaking to worlds much farther away. These places and peoples are all across this narrowing world in which digital dial-ups virtually bridge geographical distances. We once went to the moon, but to my grandmother, there is something equally impressive, if not more so, about the daily capacity today of seeing a voice and hearing a face on the other side of the world.

I had been away, but this hollowing knocking sound brought me back to the foreignness of the home I live in, China, a place of voices I often cannot understand but must merely guess at, grasping some meaning amongst speechless noises. Though the darkened strangeness of these noises has slowly been lightened by repeat exposures and self-studying of the language, there is still something about living behind a door.

I close my door, and most of the time the world remains there, there outside. Besides the translucent passage of seasonal time that stares through my windows, I could be anywhere or nowhere, because outside my closed door, the world remains untouched and untouching. I can see out at the row of apartments facing mine, and they can perhaps see in, but behind my door, I can read and speak and write and be any identity I want. I have my intimate privacy for books in English, French and Chinese, for notebooks scribbled in English, French and some fragmented Hanzi, for my computer connected to itself and to a thousand other happenings, and for my bedtime and alone-time dreams. I can be lost and can be found behind the closing and opening of my personal dividing, security barrier. In a world I have yet to make predictably my own, there is a certain comforting reassurance to the sound of my door closing.

In China, most doors to apartments don’t have doorknobs. When the door is closed, it is in some ways already locked and can only be opened with a key from the outside or by pulling the handle from the inside. My current apartment has two doors—an external one of an impressive thickness of steel and various securable bolts on the top, bottom and sides and an internal one of lesser metallic thickness and of lesser bolts. With this external it is difficult to imagine someone being able to break through very easily or very quickly. When a friend nearby had a problem with her key, it took the locksmith over thirty minutes to break back in. These Chinese doors are for protection and security in world lacking trust; these doors also keep the harshness, the difficulty and the strangeness of that foreign outside out.

When I close my door in any of the various places and countries I’ve lived and traveled, the world remains there, beyond and outside of me. Behind the door I can live another breath however I however. Because with this social and physical mix of locks, steel and wood, I can create a unreachable home of my own. I can transport myself through books, dreams and internet connections anywhere I wish. In our Facebook and Skype world of long distances brought intimately close and a globe of cross-continentally exchanged information, there is still something about an airport security check point, a demarcated and guarded international border, a neighbor’s fence, barbed wire, or a closed door.

This knock in the night forced me out; forced me to think of the outside.

There had been other knocks at my door from expected friends or deliveries. The evening before there had been an expected knock, which I opened without hesitating to find the unexpected, several police officers outside my door. I managed to communicate with them as best I could. Their English was weak, and I briefly thought they were asking about a playstation instead of a police station as my mind spun out stories of stolen video game consoles that needed to be returned. Though I was uncertain about what they wanted, their demeanor spoke of a regularity rather than a peculiarity. I was given a name and a phone number to call in the next few days.

But this knock, this nocturnal noise was of a different tone. It was night, and its sound spoke less of anger than of fatigue. Uncertain and remembering the police, I called out a Chinese hello and peered through the spy-hole, understanding nothing of what he was saying except the fact that it was in Chinese. It was a man who appeared to be alone. I didn’t hesitate, though maybe I should have, and opened the door.

He mouthed and motioned, and, by context, I knew that he must be the neighbor from downstairs. Though I could tell he wasn’t angry, there clearly was a problem. His eyes drooped with a tiredness. I listened and nodded as he spoke and eventually mimed sleeping. Unknowing of the vast majority of his words, I could anticipate what he wanted to say: he (and perhaps his family) who lived lived below me couldn’t sleep because of some sort of noise I had been making from above. I thought maybe I had been talking too loud over Skype and said the word for “speaking” (shuo1, 说). His body language and expressions indicated that that wasn’t it.

As I continued to listen unable to understand most of what he was repeating, I thought of what I had been doing and remembered the chair I had been sitting on. It must have been scrapping the floor sending a much louder noise into the neighbor’s bedroom making it difficult to sleep. I motioned to a chair nearby in my kitchen and said, Is this it? in Chinese. He nodded and said, Yes. He spoke more words with a speed I could not understand and repeated, Is that ok? (hao bu hao?, 好不好?). Understanding his complaint, I apologized (duibuqi, 对不起) and said repeatedly, Ok, that’s fine (hao3de 好的), hoping that he too would understand from my few words that I would stop screeching my chair across the floor. And so he did as he walked down the stairs and I again closed my door to wonder.

Strange, I thought, that him and I managed to make ourselves heard.

There is something seemingly mysterious about how language works or how communication manages to happen in spite of all the varying differences and barriers between peoples and even in spite of my baby-like knowledge of this foreign tongue. I can hardly speak more than a few, very basic Chinese phrases, but progressively I’m starting feel more and more “at home” in hearing and pulling meaning out of these Chinese noises.

During my first weeks in China, I had this experience that the voices I was overhearing were speaking French as my mind converted these sounds into those previously mastered meanings. Slowly Chinese has become Chinese as sounded-words I’ve taught myself come to be meaningful-words I hear massed-up amongst a bunch of others I’ve yet to learn. And yet from this mash of fragmented meanings I try to construct what’s being said. And though sometimes I probably guess wrong, other times I, in the miracle of language acquisition, reach an understanding of Chinese that is uncannily intuitive, that just somehow happens in a purely biologically and socially way. Some doors cannot help but be opened.

In the end, even though we close ourselves off as we sometimes always must, collectively shared meaning does somehow manage to seep through us as one face meets another, as a sympathetic look creates a meaningful pause, and as closed and closed-off doors are brought to be opened by ourselves and by others. Meaning comes up afloat amongst these strange tidal waves as a noise becomes a knock, a knock becomes an outsider, and an outsider becomes a friend.

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