Nearing 9 p.m. on Monday evening, my apartment complex here in Chengdu was oddly vacant. Upper-story windows had no lights shining through. No T.V.s were on or family talks heard through the walls. Where was everyone? Most of my neighbors had left their apartments for the open sky. The reason? Our 2:29 p.m. earthquake, magnitude 7.9, had everyone quite worried.
When the quake itself hit, I left my 1st floor apartment with my animals, Little Flower (my 6-year-old Chihuahua mixed pooch) and 5-week-old abandoned kitten, Little Ghost, whom I rescued from the roadside a month ago.
At first, I was going to stay put. I sat with the animals under my strong kitchen table to await the stopping of the tremors, but as the quake grew stronger and continued to shake the building, I felt it wiser to leave. I was in Taipei, Taiwan years ago when that big quake hit but this was much more noticeable, lasted longer and more frightening.
Later, I learned getting under furniture is the absolute worst place to be during an earthquake. Collapsing buildings crush everything except the area beside the furniture where a small void is created. This void is a survivor’s haven and is referred to as the “triangle of life” by Doug Cropp, the Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI). ARTI is the world’s most experienced rescue team. His expertise also stressed never to stand in doorways (again, you won’t survive) and that stairwells are deathtraps. Likewise standing in the courtyard, like we all were doing, wasn’t safe due to the buildings toppling over onto us. Being close to the outside walls would have been a lot safer but, luckily, we didn’t have to worry about such a tragedy in our city.
Outside in our courtyard area, people poured forth from the buildings. As it was the early afternoon, most of our residents staying at home during this time are the elderly, younger retired folk, young mothers with newborns or those in private businesses who have flexible hours. For myself, I have no afternoon Chinese language classes. Usually, I’d be out walking the dog at this time but I was a bit behind schedule thus I was at home.
Once the residents made it outside, everyone settled onto benches or walkway curbs around our complex grounds and waited. Mostly, we all talked about the earthquake. Everyone has a cell phone in China so many were busily text messaging friends and family members or calling to make sure they were safe. The atmosphere quickly lifted from one of fright to one of a pleasant outing together with friends and family. My neighbors played with Little Ghost and praised how well I had looked after my motherless ward. Little Flower had taken up to romping about with a dog friend of hers. Other dog owners appeared with their pets as well, but they were unleashed and running wild. My concern turned from that of the quake to that of having a dog fight on my hands. I quickly leashed Little Flower just in time to avoid a nasty canine clash. A vicious bite-and-snarl session took place between two of the larger breeds with the owners unable to pull them apart for some time. Bystanders scattered while the two dogs went at it. Fortunately, neither dog was hurt seriously but it certainly scared the rest of us.
After that, we animal owners were much more careful about allowing our pets to run about so freely.
Since no one wanted to return indoors, we all sat outside. After the second hour, however, I became bored and decided to take a turn around our neighborhood block.
Walking along the main busy city street, I found to my surprise that all the small businesses (hair salons, travel agencies, clothes stores, bookshops) were closed. The Chinese chain grocery store Trust-mart, which never closes for any holiday, along with the 24-hour McDonalds and KFC, were likewise locked up tight. One roadside flower and fresh fruit shop was crowded with people, not because of purchasing items but because the shop’s TV set was on. Passers-by, street workers and bicyclists were gathered around to hear the earthquake news and murmur amongst themselves as the reports trickled in.
Local chain and family-run convenience stores, on the other hand, were doing great business. Lines were long as people bought bottled water, cans of coke and sprite, potato chips and other snack items, most likely readying themselves to hang out with friends outside of buildings.
I happen to live across from the West Gate of Sichuan University, where I am currently studying the Chinese language. Many residents in the surrounding area (and students as well) began packing up bedding, portable stools, blankets, small tents, their computers, cellphones and bags of snacks (fruit, cakes, bread buns, nuts) to camp out on the university grounds. On my return from my walk, I passed the exodus of people with their sparse belongings heading over to the university down our narrow alleyway. By the time I returned to my apartment complex, it was likewise filling with families setting up for a pleasantly cool night out under cloudy skies. Still, it was the university where everyone seemed to be heading off to.
My first-floor neighbors (14-year-old Jalin and her parents), who live across the stairwell from me, run a small streetside convenience store which is connected to our building and a part of their apartment. For the first time in years, they closed up shop. Not even on Chinese New Year do they take a holiday but on this evening, they followed after many going to the campus.
I was invited to come so I joined the Yang family along with Little Flower to see the crowds.
Along with hundreds of others, my hosts staked out a place, spread out a bedsheet and settled down to a game of cards. They had packed up several bags of goodies from their shop in case they became hungry from their all-night venture. For us here in Chengdu, this major quake seemed more like a joyful public picnic gathering than the tragic event felt in so many other cities nearby.
While Jalin’s parents and neighbors sat, Little Flower and I wandered about the nearby campus grounds. The usually quiet grassy areas we trekked for our walks during the daytime were now filled with people. About 400 in this small corner of the university had clustered around the open field. Most were students but there were teachers and their families as well, all who live in housing provided by the school. Some had tents; a few had their computers on. Others curled up with blankets and pillows while nearby classmates messed about with their cell phones, checking text messages or calling friends. And almost everyone was fully equipped with bags of food. Fresh fruit, cakes, cookies, shelled peanuts, cans of pop and Styrofoam take-out dinners piled up next to each group huddled together.
Little Flower, as always, found herself a friendly couple who couldn’t refuse her begging antics. They fed her sponge cake until I could get her away from them.
All were in high spirits, really rather enjoying this adventure and not at all wanting to return, either from fear of another quake hitting or of missing out on a historic experience.
Along with another possible tremor, there was a huge threat of rain. All afternoon, the storm clouds rolled over us and appeared about ready to let loose with a downpour. While Little Flower and I walked around the seated crowds, a brisk wind picked up. I thought it was going to rain on everyone but our Chinese weather god seemed to hold off, as if he somehow knew everyone outside was in need of some compassion this night.
Although so many were prepared to sleep out all night, I felt it safe to return to my apartment. The worst was over and since Chengdu seemed only to have experienced a shake, my dog and I went home.
Surfing the Net and tuning in to local TV stations, I discovered quickly the devastation that resulted in areas nearer the epicenter. We were 60 miles away. Other smaller cities with buildings not built to withstand such a quake magnitude came crashing down. Schools, hospitals, office and apartment buildings trapped thousands. Seeing these images and reading reports, it’s no wonder many Chinese camped out, especially those on the upper floors.
During the rest of the evening and into the wee hours of the morning, tremors hit again and again. Those who returned to the floors above mine ended up pounding down the stairwell several times during the night, shouting “Hurry! Hurry!”.
I was still emailing people about my safety until around 2 a.m. when I took a break to stroll around the complex. About 60 of our residents were camped outside. Parents with small children had already tucked them into a few portable cots while others were sleeping soundly on their quilts, spread on the grass or hard concrete pavement. Three plastic igloo-type tents housed those who were worried of a later rain. One group of young people was still talking while eating bananas and oranges.
Then there were those of us who stayed put and had a restless sleep in our own beds. Every quiver of the building had us wondering if it would suddenly become as strong as the first.
Tuesday morning at 6 o’clock sent a downpour which caused those outside our complex to rush home for cover. When I left for my university classes at 8, there were 10 die-hards from the 5th and 6th floors who had positioned themselves on chairs and stools. They were draped in colorful rain slickers and crouched under umbrellas. Bowls of instant noodles provided a satisfying breakfast but they were not in the most comfortable environment. The drizzle was somewhat steady and our temperatures had dropped into the 60s.
To my surprise, all classes had been canceled, not only for Sichuan University but for all schools in Chengdu. Students, such as Jalin, had a much-appreciated day off. My swimming pool was also closed but McDonalds, KFC and Trust-mart re-opened their doors. I noticed as I walked by McDonalds during lunch hour, it was quite busy along with all the small, family-run restaurants that line our narrow alleyway. People were still wary about returning home, mostly as we continued to have tremors throughout the day.
As with all my experiences in China, this one once again gives me a valuable view of life in this Asian country. More news reports are streaming in about collapsed buildings and desperate measures to rescue so many trapped under rubble. I do pray for their families, friends, and the rescue workers who so diligently will be working to save as many as possible.
We are all ready to return to our normal lives and hopefully, that will happen in the next day or so.
Until next time, as we say in China: “Zai Jian!” (Bye!)