Sunday, January 15, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 15: Turn on the Sound of Silence

Vania Wang has been living in a concrete hut without a toilet on the island archipelago of Vanuatu for about a year. She has mostly lived off cabbage and sweet potatoes and her online access is spotty, so she's learned to soak into the environment around her and really "hear" what it means to be silent. I had a chance to meet with Vania while she was home from the Peace Corps over the holidays. The first thing I noticed is that this dear friend of mine had become peaceful and simple. She was full of gratitude for very basic things—things that most of us take for granted. Here she is to talk about her experiences in Vanuatu, especially her experiences with silence. Please welcome Vania Wang:

Let me preface by saying that I’m a lover of cities. I am fueled by their energy and intellectually drawn towards these buzzing beehives of human community, innovation, and art. Growing up in Seattle and later attending the University of Washington, the sounds of a city were my daily soundscape. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would often orchestrate this soundscape in my dreams, recreating the rumbling hum of wind speeding between skyscrapers, the murmur of people in coffeehouses and libraries, and the roar of busses as they careen down highways.

All these sounds are indicative of a community constantly in motion. In order to slake the chaos of a large and diverse population that is always changing, barriers are erected to categorize and organize those who dwell there, both in the form of physical structures and micro-communities. And since city-dwellers are in perpetual flux, their walls serve a second purpose of easing the human discomfort towards change and the unknown, where like-minded individuals would find their kin in a micro-community that suits them. Cities are simultaneously chaotic and controlled, large in population but small in the number of people you can know genuinely, and full with eccentric individuals who maintain their uniqueness while also falling into the flow of encompassing trends. I was living within these dichotomies during the first twenty-one years of my life. It was when I joined the Peace Corps that I started reflecting on the differences between city and village life, and the lessons that can be learned from the daily soundscapes of both environments.

It came as a bit of a surprise to others—and on some levels, myself—that I would want to spend two years living in a small village with no electricity and plumbing on the archipelago nation of Vanuatu. All the dichotomies of a city were erased and replaced by a community that is small in population with very little anonymity, doesn’t celebrate individuality and innovation, and is neither chaotic nor controlled. The sounds of a cityscape were suddenly gone and replaced by crowing roosters, soft thud of bare feet on a dirt path, and the rumbling waves of the Pacific. Take away all the churnings, whirrls, beeps, and vrooms, of post-industrial engineering and you get the sound of silence—a silence that isn’t vacuous and empty, but a silence that emphasizes the sounds of life and the deep rumble of the ocean and earth. This silence helped me appreciate aspects of life that are ignored in a technology-driven community, especially an integral part of life that is so often avoided and shunned: death.

In the west, death is often pushed into the background of our lives by medicines and treatments that desperately try to reverse its inevitability. And so death often comes as a crippling shock when it shouldn’t, and the living mourn heavily by clinging to the memories of the past and lamenting the disappearance of a desired future. The ebb from life to death is commonplace in daily rural life in Vanuatu. Poor health care and ignorance about the rudiments of hygiene and health knowledge contribute to frequent deaths in village communities. In many villages, the dead are mourned for five days only, after which their past life and deeds are put to rest into the memories of the living. But within these five days, an unearthly chorus of wails surrounds the dead in a cloak of sorrow, adding a heavy layer to the soundscape of a village. Everyone in the village participates in The Wailing, asked to join the cacophony of sadness with the family of the dead. These are five days when the family will do nothing but mourn, with the rest of the village joining them by supporting the family with food and comfort. But after the five days, the heavy layer of wailing is lifted and life goes on as usual. The death event is no longer acknowledged, and the dead is placed behind the living. Men and women go back to the gardens to work the crops for the weekly market. Smiles once again appear on faces. Life goes on.

The most valuable lesson from listening to and living within the sounds of silence is understanding impermanence at a deeper level. Even though they don’t have the modern conveniences of hot showers, modern medicine, and comprehensive education, ni-Vans intuitively understand life’s impermanence more than many developed communities. They are reminded of the changing nature of their environment every moment by their soundscape. The thud of a fallen papaya from an over-encumbered tree will soon become rotten but will later regrow to bear more tasty fruits. The frantic clucking of a dying chicken will fertilize the ground with which farmers will use to nurture their crops. The wails of family members for the dead will transform into namesakes for newborn children, allowing the memories of the deceased to continue in future generations. The ebb of life is resonant in the village. Every moment, things are rotting and regenerating, dying and birthing.

For those who live in cities, occasionally turn off your daily soundscape and turn on the sound of silence. Wander out to the wilderness to reconnect with the earth. Build and maintain a community of close friends and family, and try to reach out to different niches and micro-communities. Travel. You will find that the sound of silence isn’t foreign to human beings, and that it’s been with us since the beginning of existence. You will find that the sound of silence manifests impermanence. You will find that turning on the sound of silence will allow life’s challenges to become more manageable, because you realize that they certainly can’t last for eternity.

Vania Wang is a Seattle native who graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 with a degree in Microbiology. She now lives in Vanuatu and works as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer. She speaks English, Mandarin Chinese and Bislama. She blogs over at Serdendipitous Journeys Through the Wasted Heaven.


  1. Absolutely brilliant. This is one of the most insightful and powerful pieces I have read in a long time. It gives me pause to think and reevaluate.

    I, too, am a big city person in many ways. I have lived in cities, but I have also lived in American suburbs, in a small quiet neighborhood in Germany, and on American air bases in various states and countries, but I enjoy the people and the energy of a big city.

    I also enjoy the quiet of what I call my wife's "art room," where I close the curtains to shut out the drabness of the street in front of our house and eat breakfast while, in silence, I read a book that has gotten my interest.

    Thank you, Venia, for your contribution, and thank you, Katherine, for putting this on your blog.

  2. Vania-I've read this several times and each time I get something more from it! So insightful and beautiful. I am turning into my soundscape now. Love to you in Vanuatu!

  3. Wonderful post Vania! Hearing the Sound of Silence can be rejuvenating, and we city folk do need to get away from the noise we become used to, that's so true.

    Rites of life are much more celebrated in the cities and in Western culture, while our connection with rites of death become more and further removed. That death is as much part of life as birth, often seems to come as a shock.

    It used to be that mourners were visually recognizable by their garb, and later by a black armband, now even the letter is less common.

    I can't help but wonder whether the Vanuatu people really put the loss behind them after those five days of —all out— sharing of grief, or whether silencing the thoughts of the departed is just tradition, and a survival mode.

  4. Thanks for all your comments here. Vania is currently back in Vanuatu where internet is hard to come by. Hopefully she'll be able to respond soon!