Pressed with the need for suitable clothes to wear to a substitute teaching job next week I went shopping yesterday. I scooted on down to what is known as the Russian Market, a maze of stalls crammed together and ringed by nice little stores selling outfits that were spat out of factories and deemed unfit to export. The tiny errors in stitching or sizing are hardly noticeable so as far as I'm concerned these goods are fair game. Browsing some colorful Forever 21 frocks on the second floor of a shop, my spine stiffened at a noise. A young girl had been crying earlier but now her wails had become desperate. What I heard between her shrieks was an endless barrage of slaps, hard. I tried to ignore it, continue my browsing, but somehow the sound was everywhere, deafening. The smacking against her bare skin crept into every space, bounced out of every corner and reverberated from between the folds. It was a sickening symphony of noises coupled with the verbal silence of her mother who apparently was unable to comprehend why lighting into her toddler with such gusto was not making the child quiet. Though it felt like the beating was going on forever, the girl, exhausted and defeated, gave into the violence and silenced herself after a good long fight. The first time I saw the pair was walking down the stairs heading out of the store. It felt strange not knowing what either mother or daughter looked like. Seeing their faces felt wrong and though I was not asked to be a voyeur during the display of abuse against the window, I was. I was embarrassed by the intimacy with which I felt I knew them before I even saw them. I had heard everything.
This little event made me think about the sounds privy to people in places like Cambodia and Mongolia but excluded from those in the West. Violence against children is illegal in America but make no mistake- it happens. However, aside from minor violations, normally such disciplinary actions are reserved for the home. There are other shreds of evidence, a bruise or perhaps an unduly hostile attitude, but rarely do the streets of suburbia ring with the sounds of slapping.
Here, however, and in Mongolia, life is lived much more publicly. In Cambodia, people prop up camp beds and snooze in the street, cooking is done in the open and soccer games bounce about the roads. It's simply too hot to live inside but temperate enough for many to find that there is only need for a roof to ward off the rain. Mongolia is similar in attitude if not in climate. Property is communal and sometimes decorum is as sparse as the landscape. Once on a busy city sidewalk in a ritzy area I had to walk around a woman who had her foot propped up on a railing at a 90 degree angle as she cut her toenails letting the clippings fly into traffic. Apparently she was undisturbed by the throngs of people around her. Mongolia is also particularly complex in this sense. Many people live in gers and though the round walls warm and protect those within them, they are made of felt through which sound permeates very easily. I had many friends who were awkwardly privy to the sounds of unsavory business done by their host families even though they were sitting in a different ger on the other side of the yard.
Though there are unpleasant occasions like the one yesterday, often the noises of Cambodia are comforting and lively. Every night the moans of cats, laughter of children and buzzing of dinner parties filters into our rooms. I find it a tonic. It makes the world seem more alive and life less lonely. It's nice, even comforting, to be reminded of the various dramas that play out daily in other people's lives. The sounds are lightening, making my life seem less significant and situations less dire as every day. It's also hard to take much seriously if your workplace is relentlessly filled by the clucking of street chickens. It is usually a joy to live in places with such open cultures, though on some occasions painfully difficult to share in tragedies of strangers.