A friend of mine recently moved from Europe to New York City. To calm her worries about moving to a new continent, some of her friends came up with the idea of creating mixed CD's with music associated with the city. The playlists included songs from New York City artists or lyrics referencing the place.
As a foreigner it's hard to imagine doing the same thing if my friend had instead moved to Beijing. Not just because Europeans don't understand Chinese music, but because music simply hasn't made its mark on Beijing, nor has Beijing on the world of music, in the same way.
That's not to say there aren't artists active in Beijing—there are entire music scenes born within these ringed roads, and it is arguably one of the musical centers of the Chinese-speaking parts of the world. But there is something else that stands out in my sonic memory of Beijing.
Being the bustling mega-city that it is, walking the streets is a feast for all senses. In a given day you can encounter the smell of stinky tofu and public bathrooms mingling with the noise of the streets and the sensation of a crowd brushing past you. It can be an intense experience that leaves you physically exhausted from a day of exploring, and yearning for an escape to the mountains every once in a while just to regain your strength. It is also a great experience, and if in the right mood you can tune into your surroundings and just listen to the millions of people living out their lives all around you.
Not long ago, I was a newcomer to this city and my senses were exposed to new sights, sounds, smells and a new level of intimacy from public transportation. A few months later, all this has blended into my everyday palate of sensations so deeply that my native northern Europe (quiet, clean, devoid of odors and fragrances and so very spacious) seems like a vacuum of outer space in comparison.
When you're new to the city it can all be a bit overwhelming, but as the weeks go by you start noticing the nuances. Perhaps most poignant are the many noises one encounters in a city such as Beijing.
From the voices of hawkers and supermarket vendors, to those of garbage collectors and bicycle taxi drivers, many of the noises that manage to stick out from the buzz of traffic and conversation are the sounds of commerce. Brutally direct at times, with megaphones or recordings played at maximum volume, the declarations that something is being bought or sold or collected are at times vague and seemingly without connection to the business venture that is choosing to transmit it.
Of the latter category are the never-ending streams of upbeat dance music blared by mid-sized fashion shops, which never ceases to amaze me. The songs are mostly a mix of '90s European dance-pop that by all accounts should have been forgotten by the world by now, and should never have made it to China.
It seems there is no active choice involved in which songs are played, but how could the playlists then be so specific? The questions, I fear, are without answers, as so often seems to be the case as an expat in Beijing. Once the questions don't bother you anymore, you are free to enjoy this and many more aspects of the Beijing atmosphere that can be classified as "unpredictable."
After all, walking down Andingmennei Dajie and suddenly hearing that one song you used to get so excited about back in the high-school discos of your early teens, it feels as though Beijing and I are sharing a secret bond—a bond made audible through a trashy hit from the '90s.
The author is a Swede living in Beijing
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