Learning to tune out to stay sane in the big city

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Learning to tune out to stay sane in the big city

It was the battle of the buzzer. My hometown, Vancouver, is a city with a long, proud tradition of noise complaints, so when I found myself living in an apartment unfortunately situated above the parking garage entrance buzzer, I felt I had an obligation to say something.

Because of the baking heat these days, the windows stay open, which means that every few minutes our home is filled with the bone-shattering clang of the buzzer that signals an entering or exiting car. I tried to tune it out, to think about other things and to spend as much time as possible in the next room. But when I found myself grinding my teeth and crumpling up bits of newspaper and sticking them in my ears, I finally marched down to the office to complain, confident that I would be adding my voice to a growing chorus of people demanding a better solution. I was wrong.

Not a single person had ever said anything. I went to my Korean wife and asked her if the noise was bothering her. She said she hadn’t noticed it. I asked my neighbors, my visiting in-laws, and even the poor security guard whose desk is right next to the buzzer, and no one really cared.

I’ve heard that the sound of the earth rotating actually makes a deafening noise, but that we’ve evolved not to hear it because if we did it would drive us insane. Whether or not that’s true, that kind of focus evolution is what happens in an up-all-night city like Seoul, where if you concentrate too much on the clatter of other people living their lives, you just might end up killing one of them.

Seoulites have thick skins. They don’t bat an eye when they’re bounced out of the way by a sharp-elbowed ajumma on the subway. A thick crowd blocking the entrance to the elevator when you’re trying to get off? No big deal. I asked my wife if it got to her that people left their carts blocking the grocery store aisle when they were looking at something on the shelves. Again, she hadn’t noticed. (Five minutes later I found her doing the same thing.)

What you notice matters. Your perception is your reality. If you concentrate on the little niggling things that annoy you in a day, then chances are you’re going to have a very bad day.

Crossing cultures and living in a new city lay this fact bare. When I was in Vancouver, I had a hard time convincing my Korean friends that it was an interesting place to live. Accustomed to humming party centers like Hongdae and Gangnam, my friends found that a city where you need to find a specific venue amid a sea of silent sidewalks was not that appealing. It was too big of a jump in perception to go from somewhere you can’t avoid the nightlife to a place where you have to seek it out.

But no matter where you live, there will always be details that distract your attention from the things that you should really be focusing on. This is true no matter how much money you make or what country you happen to be from. Training yourself to tune out the roar of all that’s miserable in the world around you just may be the secret to happiness.

And the parking buzzer? In the end, I just shut the window and bought an air-conditioner.


By Richard Scott-Ashe [richardscottashe@gmail.com]
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