The sound of rain (and hurricanes) sticks in my memory

2020-05-22 03:12     Comment:0

Essay by Swallow Xu*

         The COVID-19 pandemic has virtually given us a blackout in social and even family activities. Days ago my father was celebrating his birthday in Zhuhai, but I missed it due to strict border control measures. When I showed my sorrow in the video call, he was so wise to say, “Missing a birthday get-together is nothing. What matters is we are all healthy…”

Quarantine may give us inconveniences, boredom or even anxiety. On the other hand, it creates time, space and voids, making our senses sharper and keener.

Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke emotionally charged memories.

We are having a lot of rainfall these days in Macau. During this physical and mental void made possible by COVID-19, the sound of rain triggers memories, some far away, others close.

Childhood poker game when it rained

Quite often upon hearing a heavy downpour or crisp rain sounds, the first thing that hit me was the childhood scene of playing poker with children in my grandparents’ village. Usually this fell on a summer afternoon, when heavy rain prevented adults from farming in the fields or working outdoors in the village and kept children from going outside to play all kinds of country games like hide-and-seek, drop-the-handkerchief, catching crabs in the brook or even bathing with buffalos in the river, so we gathered and played Big Two, a poker game. Now the card playing scene blurs, what’s vividly etched into my memory is the melodic di-da-di-da sounds of rain dropping on the century-old roof tiles, or on muddy ground. I can still imagine how water flowers were formed and splashed into air when it hit the surfaces.

A youth crying in the rain

According to, a psychology site, “Memory for sound is referred to as echoic memories, which can be defined as very brief sensory memory of some auditory stimuli. Typically, echoic memories are stored for slightly longer periods of time than iconic memories (visual memories).” That must be true. Each time I hear the sound of pouring heavy rain it takes me back to the night in Taipa, outside an Irish bar.  There, a 22-year-old young woman was crying in the rain, more exactly, in a shower, for the somehow unrequited love of an older man. I can’t remember the taste of the mixture of rain and tears, but I can still feel that coolness of raindrops in my mouth. If memory does not cheat me, a stranger came out and sheltered me under an umbrella. Now I lose track of what he said (maybe he uttered no words at all and remained totally silent) but it was a warm rescue. After all these years, only the rain sounds resonate.

A night in terror: wuthering hurricane

2017 could be a year to be remembered for bad reason in my life. Soon after Macau was hit by Typhoon Hato on August 23 and then Saint Martin by Hurricane Irma on September 6, when I was still in a daze about the two places dear to me, on the evening of September 18, 2017 the full category-five force of Hurricane Maria struck the Commonwealth of Dominica, an island country in the Caribbean where I was living. The memory prints left in my brain were all sonorous. I can’t tell if those were storm or wind sounds, or a mix. Just blizzard sounds, whooshing, wuthering, as if tearing apart everything on the earth [and heaven]. This horrible sound was trying to invade our house situated half way up the mountain, as if at any minute it could break through the pale, fragile wooden door, while we were busy taking in ankle-deep water in the house through windows or walls by the force of Maria, to the laundry room. I heard things banging on each other outside, but worryingly the landlord’s dog sleeping downstairs [in a big space with a roof but without walls] was silent…Amid these terrible sounds, I finally took the landlord’s advice, fell asleep while he stayed up scooping water and clearing the mess…I woke up to be overwhelmed by the sight of a hellish looking different world: the beautiful green forested island changed face overnight, most red roofs were gone, big trees and even low plants were rooted out, exposing the poor earthy colours of the soil. I may forget any mind-blowing experiences following Maria - personal or collective, like the shortage of food and water, seeing young people looting right before my eyes, curfew, hearing gunshots in the capital, walking long distances over mud or debris on damaged roads in the scorching heat for errands, pleading with soldiers from other islands for some mineral water for fellow Chinese construction workers camping in the stadium, making a hard decision to leave the island, joining the evacuation of Chinese people by boat then sleeping for nights with several families on floor mats in a place assisted by local Chinese in Antigua before getting a flight to New York … – The horrifying tremendous sounds of a hurricane may always swirl somewhere within me.

*The author is a Macau-based translator and travel writer
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