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I thought I knew Japan and China. Then, I stopped and listened to what these countries sound like

Story published on

 June 25, 2019

I travelled across Japan and was deeply fascinated by what I saw and heard. Then, I went to China. I never expected the shock that I got there. Before listening to each of these countries, take my advice: do not go to China for the first time right after you have been to Japan. It will shake you. Where Japan builds a wall of silence in public, China has the great wall of raucous noise that comes together with an eraser of every inch of personal space there is. First, listen to the video below. Then, I’ll tell you why I wanted you to hear this:

Enjoy the silence. Japan

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Of all the strangeness I’ve travelled to as a journalist and story-seeker, Japan is THE only place I’ve actually experienced a cultural shock. That feeling that I crossed my first real border and stepped into a world with its own set of rules, a land that I couldn’t quite understand, but which made no effort to explain itself to me. 

Sure, the cities, the history, the ambivalence between rigidity and eccentricity, the temples, the parks, the cherry blossoms – they are all lovely.

But what I was fascinated most was the Japanese obsession for good manners, for respecting one’s private space. The creepiness of being in a packed subway train at rush hour and the only sounds you hear are the train directions and the ever discreet tapping on the silenced smartphones during games. Japan in silent. Yes, the Japan of the Japanese, meaning not of the tourists, turns incredibly silent in public. And then there is the raucous thundering noise of the arcade games.

And then I went to China

My ears had only gotten used to this quiet wall the Japanese build around themselves in public when I left this amazing country and got to China. In hindsight, this was very bad judgement on my part. But mistakes should turn into lessons, so here’s the lesson: do not go to China for the first time right after you have been to Japan.

Where the Japanese keep you away with an impenetrable silence, the Chinese pull and push you away with their shouting. It’s like they want the world to aknowledge them. Of course, I never did manage to understand a thing across the sea of noise that engulfs you anywhere in China, but I was always aware that they were there, so many people, always, everywhere. They were unapologetic of what in other cultures would pass as bad manners. It was their turf and I was just passing by. 

Where the Japanese bow, the Chinese push to find their way through the crowd. A suiting metaphor for both countries over the past decades, wouldn’t you agree?