I was preparing to alight from the gaotie (high speed train) on my way to a friend’s wedding one sweltering Friday afternoon this summer when I heard raised voices. At first, I thought nothing of it. People in China shout at the top of their voices all the time, it’s just the normal pitch at which to have a conversation. You’ve got to be loud to be heard.
A newcomer to Beijing might feel intimidated by what my didi (little brother) dubbed “shadvertising” – people shouting to advertise their wares while selling things on the street – but it soon becomes clear from the speaker’s tone of voice that their shouting is jovial and non-threatening. Shouting is normal behaviour in China, particularly in a city like Beijing. Chinese cities sprawl, the traffic jams spill out far into the suburbs, every street crawls with people. (I’m convinced anything seen as a city in China is bigger than any city in the UK.) China demands its residents to shout in order to compete.
But this time was different. The arguers were standing, horns locked, in the aisle in the centre of the carriage, a mother and daughter flexed for battle with apparently no sense of their audience. They had drawn the people around them into their quarrel, like a black hole draws in matter. The whole carriage was by now either involved or enthralled.
It wasn’t simply an argument, either. These two had handfuls of one another’s hair, their limbs entwined and were going for one another’s throats.
This was just as we drew into Xuchang station, where many people would leave the train. For them, perhaps this was something they’d tell their wife or the taxi driver on their way home, or something they would forget before their ticket was sucked through the security barrier upon leaving the station. This was just the first of many curious little events to occur on a long, long journey I took over the next several days (on my way to Mandalay via Kunming), but it stuck with me.
I am often surprised that the day-to-day passive aggressive behaviour of many Chinese people doesn’t seem to warrant more of a reaction from those around them. People who spit in the street narrowly avoid gobbing on someone else’s foot and don’t get even a harsh word. People crash into others on their bikes and nobody bats an eyelid.
An argument could spring out of the air at any moment. But while little altercations are common, most of their participants just need to vent a two-minute hurricane and then the moment blows over and everyone moves on. In reaction to my latest bike crash (very minor), the guy on the motorbike who had slammed into my back wheel didn’t say a word to me, barely looked at me and simply sighed before driving off.
I, on the other hand, am constantly ready for the fight. I ride my bike far too fast and far too often get into sticky situations (in Chinese, a fixed–speed bike is a ‘sifei’ or ‘die flying’), but I am eager to blame the oncoming traffic for their mistakes without taking any responsibility. I should be more careful. I should know the rules of Beijing traffic by now (there is one rule: drive like there are no rules) and I should not expect Beijing drivers to be British drivers. But I relentlessly shout English curse words at Beijingers, loving it all the more because they probably don’t understand. (I shouted “FUCK!” at the top of my voice after almost breaking my nose against the back of a bus in downtown Beijing about 3 weeks ago. A local woman stood in the traffic and proceeded to yell “Fa-Ke” repeatedly as I cycled off, somewhat proud of the chain reaction.)
I quite enjoy getting into a bit of a fight. It makes things more exciting. But then, it makes things much more stressful, too. I have often caught myself reacting to a situation half way through fiercely blaming the other party, when I am at fault. I very often pick a fight with my loved ones simply because things have not gone my way that day. Shouting at Beijing motorcyclists is almost like therapy, because if I don’t get a chance to vent my frustrations, I will amass anger until it pulls me apart.
So all this leaves me asking how I ought to react. What should I be doing when people almost spit on me, or step right into my path I have to screech to a halt? Is it natural to seek out conflict? Or do I have anger issues I need to address?