We live on both the 5th and 6th floor—the top—of an old apartment building here in Beijing. Our apartment is a split-level so there’s an upstairs and a downstairs. There is no elevator in our building. There are 84 steps that lead up to our main door. Because of our two-floor apartment, there are another 14 steps on the inside of our apartment too, to get to the upstairs floor. In other words, we know how to climb stairs.
Knees of steel.
Despite our cool apartment, living at the top has another downside: the echo effect. You can hear people’s high heels clicking sharply on the cement stairs at night or the clump and thump of boots on the steps as our neighours trudge upwards. These sounds reach us at the top with a particular overtone that rattles my nerves, perhaps like being caught in a reverberant bell tower. I can mostly tune it out, but there are days…
As personal compensation, I walk stealthily up the stairs. I prefer the challenge of being quiet against the cement. I’ll be one less ricochet of sound off of everyone else’s walls.
At night, the stairwells have lights that turn on as you make your way up or down. In the building across the courtyard from us, I sometimes watch the little yellow squares of light from the stairwell windows that come on and off to mark a person’s journey up or down the lonely cement steps.
I was very confused by these lights at first. I mean, I know all about motion detector lights in Canada. Canadians mostly install them on the fronts of our houses near the main doors or garages so that when we pull up in the car or when someone arrives to knock on the door, the light turns on. Or, when a raccoon tears across our front porch we can see that it’s not a home invader! These lights are efficient, environmental, effective.
But, the lights here didn’t always turn on. I found this very annoying. Sometimes they would turn on and sometimes they just wouldn’t and I couldn’t figure them out. Why can’t they “see” me? I’d think. Are they configured at the wrong angles, or what? Are the light bulbs burnt out?
I started to do my research on them. Sometimes one floor would turn on and the other wouldn’t. I’d mentally take note, mostly assuming it was just burnt out. The next night, the one that hadn’t turned on for me the previous night would suddenly spring to life.
I was left scratching my head.
I started to walk up the stairs waving my arms. I reached in one direction and the other, in case the detector parts of the lights were pointing in the wrong direction. I was trying to figure out if maybe I needed to walk closer to the railing or closer to the wall, or if maybe I was too short for their scope?!
My experiments kept losing their integrity. Even with what I thought were consistent variables, the results were erratic. I couldn’t figure it out.
Every time I walked up the stairs with Guo Jian, however, every single light would go on. I even started wondering if the lights were prejudiced against foreigners! Not seriously, of course, but maybe it was because he was taller than me? Perhaps…
Then one day, I was walking ahead of Guo Jian by one floor (he’s so slow!) and I stopped at the landing when the light didn’t go on. I started waving my hands around in that ridiculous way we do when we’re trying to get someone’s attention. The light was ruefully ignoring me.
Guo Jian caught up to me then and asked, stupefied, “What. Are. You. Doing?” This was asked in the rude way, I should add. There is a verb for “to do” in Chinese that is quite a casual one, and when asked with a certain tone becomes more like this question: “What the hell? 你干吗”
Then the light went on.
“How did you do that?” I asked, incredulous, and ignoring his rude question. “Do what?” he said. “Turn on the light!” I snapped back, as though it were obvious, and he looked at me like I was an alien growing another alien out of my head again. This look was becoming annoyingly familiar.
“I was trying to move around so that it would see me,” I said in my defensive, broken Chinese of 2008, which sounded more like, “I move also hope light can see me. 我动也希望灯可以看见我.”
His expression shifted from bemused to amused as he pushed past me and motioned for me to follow him up the stairs. Just before we made it to the top of the next landing, he made a popping sound with his mouth and… then there was light.
It was finally clear.
(A different kind of light went on. This one in my brain.)
For many weeks, I hadn’t realized that these lights were sound activated and not motion detectors.
No wonder everyone walks the stairs like they’re bigfoot!
Wow, did I ever feel dumb in that moment. Well, dumb but relieved. Mystery solved.
Guo Jian, however, had a completely different reaction.
He laughed and laughed. He laughed until his sides hurt. He laughed all the way up to our apartment and then kept laughing even after we’d closed the door. He laughed so much that I started laughing too. It was infectious.
He then told that story over and over for about a week to every friend he and I ran into. Much to my mortification, he started to exaggerate the motions I was making, too, so that by the end of the week, my dance became the dance of a confused gorilla hopping from foot to foot and waving her arms in every direction in some sort of absurd mating ritual with an inanimate object.
I was not amused. I finally requested that the story (please?!) be retired.
But, when Guo Jian came to Canada for the first time in the summer of 2008, I felt a lot better when I saw him standing motionless outside on my parent’s driveway while making that popping sound with his mouth, over and over…. in the pitch black dark of night.
I watched, thoroughly amused.
But then I took pity on him.
“Do a dance!” I yelled at him through the open window.
He yelled back, “Why would I do that?”
“Because the lights can’t hear you in Canada!”
There was a pause and then…
The gorilla burst into its manic mating dance.
Who’s the alien now?