White noise: the scientific phenomenon that occurs when you hear a specific sound such that your brain starts to block it out to the point that your ear still registers but your brain relegates it to the background. You hear it yet you don’t hear it. White noise is a sure and accepted concept in science that concerns auditory affairs of the ear and sound. I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept can be applied to people.
In much of Asia, where the population density is much too high for the average westerner’s taste, this seems to be the case. “People mountain, people sea”: this common Chinese phrase expresses the astonishment of seeing so many people that it is seems they are one massive ocean of people, one massive unit of flowing human bodies that is never-ending. That is Shanghai: busy, bustling and booming to the point of being overloaded with people. People are even on top of each other, stacked, and piled, bodies on bodies piled as high as a mountain.
It’s just people, people, people. So many people that it seems people stop seeing people. That effect that white noise has on the ears, China has on the eyes. One sees people to the point that people fade into the background; they stop becoming people in the fullest since of the word, instead they become scenery… people de-personified, people de-identified. Now, don’t get me wrong, because Chinese lives matter and, additionally, in a place such as Shanghai, which is one of the most populated cities in the world, there are more people than you can really ignore.
In this sea you see people going to work, you see people going to the bank, going home, people walking, and walking while looking at their phone, but what gets me is that in a city where there are so many people, people seem to focus on everything around them but two things:
- Where they are going
- Other people
I have seen with my own eyes people opening doors and the door barely missing a passerby’s face but neither party flinches. I have seen with my own eyes cars almost run into people only for the person who almost got their head knocked off to barely notice. I have seen and won’t forget the many young and old people, who know they are walking in the midst of a large herd of souls but still decide to stop immediately, not giving a damn if the person behind them crashes into them or not. On a daily basis I experience people walking straight into my path because their bodies are moving in one direction while their eyes are looking in another, moving without a care in the world for anything or any person around them. People seem to move through people like moles tunneling forward. How one moves so effortlessly through such a gargantuan sized city with absolutely zero awareness or concern for whether or not they collide with, run over, or walk into another person, truly astonishes me.
The inhabitants of this urban jungle seem to care nothing for others around them. They move through large crowds of people as if they are moving through a large plaza devoid of any other soul. Heads down, minds occupied, they move through the bustling urban sprawl. They move through the city the same way they move through their lives, only concerned with the immediate, or at least that’s how it appears to me. Bodies are moving, but eyes are stuck on their cell phone screens. It’s almost like the brain is being entertained while the body is going through the humdrum routine of everyday life. It seems like mental escapism, and it allows the brain to find reprieve and be relieved from the routine while the body becomes the mule, doing the grunt work of life.
It feels like the inside of a beehive, really, but there is no Beyoncé here, no queen bee, no scintillating center of attention, the locus of power prefers to be unseen. The worker bees are over worked, and they don’t have time to enjoy the luxuries of life. To them, life is about hard work and if they aren’t working hard to become tired then they aren’t living right. One, such as the writer, has always had the impression that in nature, a bee works to make honey, and the honey sweetens its life, but not these bees. These bees work hard for the accumulation of money and for everything that money can buy. So like a bee to honey, these bees are to money, heads down, buzzing, moving, working, pushing forward, focusing not on what’s around them, but instead simply getting through the day, and then getting to the next.
Buzzing and being, these bees are relegated to the background. Seen but not seen, hearing but not heard, alive but not living. What and everything that they are loses their potency, their power and their persona. But in the midst of the chaos, they lose their individualism and their importance. Even if they speak up or out, what ever is spoken is simply ignored and relegated to noise—White Noise.