Minding the Borderlands

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

Hearing the (Un)Expected and Finding the (Un)Mistakable: Est-ce Que Tu M’entends?

"A reflective pond scene from a garden in Suzhou, China."

I’m in Shanghai. It’s a bitterly cold night. Its completed tall-buildings are diamonds scattered among the still-pending construction sites. From the wind and hunger, I’ve found refuge in a Muslim noodle shop, a context whose Chinese I have more or less mastered. I order my noodles and wait.

“Est-ce que tu m’entends hey ho ! Est-ce que tu me sens hey ho !”

These French words pulse hollowly from my neighbor’s cellphone as he and his younger female companion finish their bowls. He must be well over thirty, his friend “around” twenty.

I must be having some sort of hallucination: “Ca fait longtemps, en bas de ta fenêtre… Fais juste un signe pour montrer que t’es làaaah.” These unmistakable French pop lyrics crackle out of the man’s bassless speaker. Unmistakable to me,but did I make a mistake? Did I really hear that song? Est-ce que tu m’entends? Do you hear me? Do I hear myself?

I must be mistaken as I attempt to piece together borders and a personal history from America to France to China. It must be just another international rip-off, I tell myself.

We experience the world through our expectations. We see what we expect to see, hear what we anticipate, and conceptualize what largely falls into the already-known. As infants, we are already taking the mass of sensory input and bracketing it little by little meaning from noise. The extensive possibilities of expressive human languages eventually gets limited to a single language. It’s from this linguistic and conceptual framework along with our biologically evolved sensory bodies that we are able to understand and express the things around us. This generative process results in both a meaningfully textured self and a socially mapped world. Our mental “switches” get soft- and hardwired this way or that. A world of possible could’s becomes our real is’s and are’s.

Our brains get wired to hear an understand the languages we know. When we start hearing and learning a foreign tongue, we often initially label this new language as noise and simply turn away our attention to its meaning. With related languages, the process is less brutal, because in fact some words and sounds take part in parallel lives in multiple languages. Some words like mama or papa (or baba in Chinese) are universal due to the timing of the physiological evolution of our expressive organs. But when it comes to particularly foreign languages, like Chinese or Japanese to a Westerner, there isn’t much familiarity to what’s been said and heard. It’s all noise and confusion initially. As such, it’s a difficult and straining process to make your attentive mind aware of the meaningful sounds of such a language.

Learning requires an attentive re-tuning of our mental and sensory wiring so that noise becomes meaningful sounds. At the beginning, understanding requires a huge effort, but slowly things take shape and understanding turns into a passive process. You hear the meaningful without even concentrating. In fact, it becomes impossible to turn off your understanding. The initial noise of subway voices suddenly turns into an overwhelming clarity of understanding. At this point, there is no turning off such meaning-ed sound.

I’m in Suzhou. It’s a pleasant spring day. Its canals and gardens are quiet recluses to the dusty industrialization that this Chinese city, a clone amongst a family of twins, is taking on like its countless neighbors. I’ve just left the Silk Museum and a brief conversation in French with an elderly French woman whose daughter nows lives in China. I’ve managed to wander my way into some snacks and up the “pedestrian” street where I’m staying.

I gaze into the shaded canal waters as tranquil bikes and not-so-tranquil motorbikes go by. I turn the corner to where I’m staying when I do a double take. A voice singing: “Est-ce que tu m’entends hey ho ! Est-ce que tu me sens hey ho !” Or at least that’s what I hear.

He must be in his late twenties. He’s Chinese. He’s with a couple Chinese friends. And he seems to me to be singing a Chinese song.

This must be some sort of hallucination, a reminder of another place. I turn around to see if I can catch any more of these elusive words. I look both ways unable to locate this now ghostly Frenchified Chinese voice. I could only have been mistaken. It’s unbelievable to imagine that this French song, which I had never heard of in the US and had only discovered vicariously to love and sing at the end of my time in France, had been able to take such root in China. Was this man really singing, “ Est-ce que tu m’entends hey ho?” “Do you hear me” in French? I tell myself it’s impossible as I try to connect the dots to myself and to these fragmentary world.

When you get multiple languages floating around in your attentively expressive brain, things can get quite mixed up in terms of expected and perceived linguistic information. You hear things you couldn’t. You say things you shouldn’t. Linguists call it “code-switching” when individuals from multilingual switch intentionally and unintentionally between different languages.

Since arriving in China, I’ve been haunted the meaningful sounds of the French language. While it had taken years to turn French noise into a flow of meaning, this conceptual framework had also turned into my default switch for Chinese. I had been obsessed and engrossed for several years by a French life and “self” that these initial weeks in China often sounded to me like it was largely French. I was often hearing familiar French when it should have been foreign Chinese. The fragmented discourses crawling from the street through my window often felt to me as though it was French. My passive mind simply turned it into something that made sense, because clearly there was meaning to be had. I still struggle sometimes with this mental switch. When I speak, I often drop French connectors instead of their Chinese equivalent. For example, a random ten minute conversation in French can throw off my switches for several hours. I hesitate greeting people in French instead of Chinese and their voices are suddenly too understandable to be have been correctly heard.

Languages overlap. Some people overlap with languages. I grew up in one language. I was able to train my brain to hear French. I’m currently trying this process with Chinese. All of these languages allow me a rich conceptual framework but also give me certain degree of skepticism when it comes to what I hear and what I think I hear.

It’s past midnight. I’m chatting online in half-Chinese, half-English. This is the future: we can chat with someone halfway across the globe, but we’ll still probably chat and facebook and link-up with the people that are largely near to us. At this hour, here I am chatting with someone less than hour away. But we’ve never met in person.

She’s twenty something. Or so she says. She’s found me through some sort of connection. We’ve chatted before. She asks me what music I like. I mention generalities: French rap, alternative music, Chinese pop music, indie rock, etc. She laughs and asks if I know the song “Hey Oh.” A connection is drawn to an imagined reality. In an instant, she’s sent me the song.

A double click. I’m listening. An American hearing a French pop rap song in China.

Half a world away in either direction: France, USA, and China. Across the foreign and familiar through different times, places, and languages, the unmistakably heard on a crackled cellphone speaker; the unexpected heard sung from a Chinese voice. A French pop rap song I had sung myself with the windows down while road tripping in the Southwest United States. In the end, I found that my skepticism was unfounded, my hesitating was unmistaking, and the unexpected—my unexpected—had been heard unmistakably.

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