I woke last night to the sound of a woman screaming. My first response was to rush to the window to see if I could spot an attacker. So, there I stood at 1.30am, looking decidedly dishevelled and rudely awoken, peering out the window like a nosy neighbour. Phone in hand, my fingers were poised and ready to call the police.
For all the good my nosing about was doing I couldn’t see an attacker, in fact the angle of my window made it impossible to see anything aside from the kitchen in the opposing flat (which on some occasions is occupied by a man who likes to cook while naked).
Just as I was about to pull on a pair of jeans and run outside to face an unknown boogieman armed with nothing but a mobile phone, the screaming stopped. The air was thick with a knowing silence. I wasn’t the only one who heard those screams, but unlike my quiet hometown of Melbourne where screaming is reserved only for the absolute best or absolute worst of happenings, screaming in Beijing is used regularly and for cathartic purposes.
Based on my modest observations, Chinese people have a penchant for vocalizing their emotions. With four generations crammed under one roof, a Chinese family operates in much the same way an office does, except you can’t quit. Everyone must play their part, be courteous and always patient lest they rock a very, very cramped boat. No matter how much one is seething inside, one must keep it to one’s self for the “greater good.”
But leave the sanctity of the home and it seems all bets are off. During my first months in Beijing I was forced to listen to an old married couple argue outside my window at precisely 2am every night. I can picture them now, standing out on the street hurling abuse at one another in the most public of forums until they’d vented their frustrations for the day and could return home calm.
I believe that the sheer public-ness of these expressions actually gives people a sense of anonymity that they would never have within the home or among friends. It’s a performance that distances people from their actual conflict and allows them see it through the eyes of a third party. Like going to a therapist but without the bill.
The woman outside my apartment eventually stopped her fear-inducing cries and switched to quiet sobbing. As she took sharp breaths between sobs I put my phone away and curled back under the sheets.
Hearing a grown woman crying alone in the dark is an odd experience. Part of me wanted to comfort her, give her a shoulder to rest upon and perhaps even a good stiff drink. But the other part of me knew that all this stranger wanted was to be left alone, even just for 30 minutes, so that she could express herself in the most basic way she knew how.
Mother, wife and carer are still very much women’s primary positions in China, from which there can be little deviation — and the woman sitting outside alone, no doubt fit into one if not all of those roles. Though women have been entering previously male-dominated areas of Chinese society for the past three decades, this has largely been within the middle class. Which makes this development somewhat of a moot point, as China’s middle class is small enough to fit on a postage stamp.
I know that every morning millions of Chinese women wake up at 6am to prepare breakfast for their entire extended family. They clean and care for children, regardless whether or not they are their own. Lunch is served, followed by more domestic chores and caring for elderly family members. Finally dinner, which is eaten promptly at 6.30pm every night. This routine will be repeated every day until the next generation of women come in to replace them.
But they can’t complain. These daughters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers are just parts of a very hard working machine. Everyone has a job to do and if they took time out for themselves, or simply refused to get out of bed one day, the system would collapse. Within the walls of China’s homes, everyone carries their own burden. Yet for the most part, everyone is content.
There are few women like this in the large cities, but even the most well positioned must live with the constant pressure of being available to serve others. The crying woman outside my window is one of many who need to take an hour out of their lives every now and then to release this immense pressure.
This woman wasn’t in trouble; she was simply unburdening herself of all the tears she couldn’t shed in front those closest to her. When she was done, I heard her walk softly back to her apartment and buzz herself in. She was going back to her life, and she was going back feeling a little lighter. Which is the best anyone can hope for after a self-conducted therapy session.