Saturday, January 20, 2007

What I Hear

One of the big problems Japanese students have when learning English is distinguishing vocabulary with similar meanings from one another. The difference between "watch" and "look" is often a tricky one as is the difference between "listen to" and "hear".

As part of a lesson constructed to practice "listen to" and "hear" and distinguish when to use one or the other, I had a student tell me everything he hears around his home. It got me thinking about what I hear around my apartment and how we often focus on what we see more than on our other senses.

My time in Tokyo from an aural viewpoint is vastly different from my life in Pennsylvania. This is, in large part, because I never lived in a metropolis but it's also related to the extremely close proximity to people and possibly living in a place with cheaper (and less soundproof) building materials.

Here are the things I regularly hear:
  • A neighbor practicing the flute and playing poorly.
  • My elderly neighbors having loud conversations in front of their home for extended periods of time. They are so loud that it's like they're in the same room with us when our windows are open.
  • The sliding doors opening and closing in the apartment above us.
  • Various announcements from trucks selling things like rods that are used to hang laundry out on the balcony and roasted sweet potatoes or letting you know that they will collect your old electronics items like computers, T.V.s, or stereo components. Occasionally, during election times, I hear political prattle from trucks or vans driving up and down the streets.
  • People vacuuming their walls on the other side of our walls.
  • The neighbor above us tossing dirty cleaning water onto or over their balcony and hearing it splash around or on ours (sometimes when our clean laundry is hanging out on our balcony).
  • In summer, very loud cicadas in the little garden between our landlord's house and our apartment.
  • People hanging laundry on their balconies (it makes a distinct sound as the hangers hit the hollow tubes they are hung on).
  • Sparrows loudly and sharply chirping at each other and crows cawing.
  • An extremely inane tune played once or twice a week by a truck that drives around selling fuel.
  • Neighbors opening and closing the metal shutters that you can close across your windows for added security in the world's safest metropolis.
  • The door of our immediate neighbor opening and closing at least a half dozen times a day at all hours of the day and night as well as his key inserted and turning the lock. His front door is so close to ours that, when our kitchen window is open, it sounds like our door is being unlocked, opened and closed. Sometimes, this freaks me out when I'm home alone because it sounds like someone is coming in.
  • When it's quiet and the windows are open, I hear traffic stopping and starting as the lights change on a major street about a minute's walk from our apartment. I also hear various sirens from time to time.
  • The neighbor on one side flushing her toilet or running her bath. It appears to be located behind our closet.
  • People on motorcycles and scooters driving up and down the street. Many of them frequently stop and start as they pause in front of mailboxes and cram in advertising.
  • A daily tune which is played every day at 5:00 pm to inform children that they should go home now. This music always makes me melancholy because it's a little sad and because it reminds me of my husband and I being apart at that time of day.
  • People beating futons as part of airing them out (I hear this quite frequently).
  • Neighbors pulling mail from their door slots and people pushing fliers and junk through our mail slot.
  • Passerby and neighbors sneezing, gobbing up, and coughing (frequently on the latter two accounts).
  • The garbage and recycling trucks coming by on the appointed days.
  • Our doorbell ringing.
The things I used to hear back home and I no longer hear in Tokyo, in contrast are:
  • In winter, icicles falling from the edge of the roof and snow crunching as someone walks around outside. Also, ice noisily dripping as the stalagmites of ice begin to thaw.
  • Cars pulling into our driveway and their engines starting up or being turned off. Now, traffic and cars are pretty much an en masse experience whereas they were very individual aural experiences before.
  • In summer, crickets chirping.
  • Mountain lions crying.
  • In winter, cars spinning their wheels as they try to drive up icy hills.
  • The central heating turning itself on and off.
  • The clothes dryer running.
  • Cats and dogs doing their various daily activities.
  • My mother clearing her throat with a little coughing noise.
  • My father lighting his cigars with a Zippo lighter.
  • People knocking on our front door.
  • The banging of a screen door.
  • Feet going up and down stairs that sometimes creak.
  • The dull drone of television in English during most waking hours.
  • A mail truck delivering our mail.
  • Racks in our oven being rearranged.
  • My parents yelling for my sister and I to do something they don't want to do. ;-)
  • In summer, the lawnmower cutting grass.
What I discovered in thinking over this change in aural sensation is that you lose a lot of environmental aspects that you don't tend to immediately recognize unless you focus on them. "Home" goes beyond what you can see and do and extends into what you hear, smell, feel, and breath. I think these are aspects that contribute to homesickness that we don't often think about.


nick said...

Very true! I've just moved closer to the countryside in Japan and it's much quieter than where I was living before, but I still get the 'noise' trucks driving past. They used to really bother me until I actually needed to throw out some electronics and those guys came past offering to take it - for a fair price, too!

Shari said...

Hi, Nick and thanks for your comment. :-)

I've also given electronics to the trucks driving around. Some of them are free to get rid of items to and some charge a fee. So far, I've always tracked down the guy who'll take things for free so I feel pretty fortunate.

Most of the incidental sounds don't bother me much. The sounds that bother me the most are the doorbell and the phone ringing since they are relatively invasive. I especially get annoyed by the doorbell when I'm not expecting anyone or anything because I know it's someone who wants to sell me something or convert me to their religion.

Leon said...

Its not so much the noise, but the smell that gets me. One that I remembered from reading this is the smell of fresh cut grass - living in an area with lots of lawn in all the gardens around you means that there is always somebody doing some gardening.

Ps. You don't mind me adding a link to your site on mine? Love your writing.

Shari said...

Hi, Leon and thanks very much for your kind comment. I would be very pleased if you added a link to my site to yours. In fact, now that you've posted, I'll have a read through your site. :-)

The funny thing about smells is that, every once in awhile, I'll smell something which reminds me of something from deep in my memory. It's sometimes hard to identify the smell because the context is always wrong. For instance, sometimes, we smell a "band-aid" smell (the smell of the band-aid when you just open the wrapper) while walking down the street in a residential area. In a different area, we smell something which seems like orange baby aspirin.

I do miss the smell of grass though.