A Wednesday sunrise was to bring normality to Chengdu.
The pouring rain stopped. Not a single noticeable tremor the entire night. Our campers from the upper floors had dwindled, mostly because the constant rain had chased them away but also because others felt it safe to return to their apartments. I should know because I was up until after 2 a.m., emailing friends. I saw a few 5th and 6th floor lights click on around midnight in three of the apartment buildings across from mine.
I expected classes to resume and despite being dreadfully tired, I dragged myself out of bed to get ready for my daily routine: Chinese courses, swimming , dog walk and homework.
Instead, the only change was a bit of hazy sunlight breaking through the overcast skies.
Just like yesterday morning, I walked quietly by our tent sleepers, across the street and asked the university’s West Gate attendants if classes had resumed. I expected them to assure me they were but they shook their heads.
“The earthquake,” they said, rather astonished at my stupidity. “Don’t you know?”
I should have gotten the clue by the absence of children on the streets, going off to school. With classes canceled, all the kids were sleeping in late.
By 10:30 a.m., the courtyard was actually quite empty. Our tent residents had awakened and gone off to work. Only two or three bored adults were standing outside. They were reading earthquake articles from the daily newspaper posted behind glass on our outside notice board.
But another rather strong tremor hit, sending my ceiling fixtures swaying. The ground had been steady for so long that most of us had thought this was truly the end. Yet another quaking sent those upstairs quickly thundering downstairs. The elderly slowly made their way back to the cement benches we had occupied for most of Monday afternoon. The courtyard filled once again with residents and excited chatter. And from the back alleyway, car horns blared obnoxiously to warn off those who had rushed into the street from their small shops. This included Jalin’s parents who have been back in business for 2 days now.
Their convenience store is just one of the many businesses lining the street. All of these small, one-room shops are actually a part of our apartment building. Each owner merely tore out the back wall of their flat, which hugs the narrow sidestreet behind us, and created an easy money-making business for the family.
My neighbor’s convenience store is actually the Yang family’s only income, which can’t be much. Jalin told me most of the money comes from her mother’s older sister who went to America to support the family. She lives in New York City’s Chinatown and does massages and manicures. A majority of the money she makes she sends back home to support Jalin’s parents, who have only a junior high school education, and help with the care of grandparents.
I met Jalin’s 46-year-old aunt last month when she returned to Chengdu for the first time in 7 years. She informed me that she can make about $3,000 a month in the States, pays $150 for an apartment she shares with two other single Sichuanese women, and sends quite a bit back to China to help her family. As the oldest sister of the three, and there being no brothers , this would indeed be her responsibility, to help care for everyone. She even owns the apartment that Jalin’s family lives in and supplied all the funds for them to create their own shop. With no rent to worry about, the profits can all go to pay for Jalin’s education (current and future) as well as take care of the family’s basic needs. Since prices for goods are drastically rising across the country, and the Yang’s keep their tiny shop open 7 days a week (10 a.m. to 2 a.m.), this low-income family has no time or extra cash to spend on frivolous things such as vacations or big city shopping sprees. They are very frugal with their money and know how to save, like so many of us don’t.
When full sunshine finally broke around 2 p.m., I decided it was time for Little Flower and me to get out. For two days, we had not been on our usual walking route around the Sichuan University campus. This school is quite large and I had only seen one small part of it on Monday evening when I left with my neighbors to join others near the school’s West Gate. Most likely, students would be spread about throughout the school but I was not aware of it.
This is the disadvantage of not living on campus with the other foreign language students. I rent my own apartment outside of the school so I never know exactly what’s going on unless someone tells me. I certainly found this out when LF and I began making our rounds through the main avenues of the university.
At the head administration building, an earthquake information center had been erected under a tent. Most likely on Monday afternoon, the place had been packed with students asking questions and picking up the school announcement sheets which explained the history of China’s quakes and the rules the school would follow. Listed on this sheet were the dates of canceled classes, Tuesday and Wednesday, with everything returning to the regular schedule on Thursday.
If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have bothered getting up early in the morning for the past two days.
Throughout the campus, students had set up their bedding outside, either on the grass or under classroom building overpasses that would protect them from the sun and rain. Well-tended lawns that once were forbidden territory to students now became speckled with squatters. Hundreds of make-shift bedsheet tents, created by ropes attached to trees, were found in the woodsy areas. Around the sports stadium, huge plastic canvas sheets had been draped over outdoor exercise equipment, providing quite a cozy corner for the 100 or so students who managed to claim that space. The sports field had also been opened. I calculated 400 or more crashed on the asphalt.
Tables and chairs positioned under trees allowed comfortable sitting and eating areas. Most of the students I saw, however, were sleeping on bamboo-woven mats topped with blankets or crashed inside their tents. I’m sure with the heavy rain last night, those who braved the elements didn’t have a very comfortable rest.
Nor were the students the only ones the dog and I walked by. Teachers with their families had also created their own camping areas outside of their nearby housing units. Many elderly grandmas and grandpas were fanning themselves under the shade of trees. The little kids were playing around them. The parents read newspapers while listening to Sichuan radio reports of the relief efforts.
With all the outdoor activities going on, it reminded me of my childhood summer swimming meets. Our all-day invitationals had us laying out the sleeping bags on lawns, plastic bags of junk food piled nearby, the radios tuned to desirable channels, parents resting in lawn chairs, the little kids running about before their races . . . There certainly was a similar lazy yet upbeat atmosphere to the campus. Everyone was making the best of an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime situation by keeping high spirits.
There were others, however, who were more service oriented. When LF and I left the campus for the main streets, we saw university students accepting donations for the earthquake victims. They had set up a booth outside the Trust-mart, were waving flags and encouraging passersby to give from their hearts.
Another young high school student stood outside the small gate into my apartment compound. She had written her own message in colorful markers, asking for clothes for the earthquake victims. Already, she had 4 plastic bags of clothing and was excitedly accepting yet another. Two reading her sign praised her for her efforts. I did as well. We three promised to look through our things to see what else we could add to her pile.
And on that last note, I will close to keep my promise to our young volunteer before she heads off to deliver her donations. Like many American women, my wardrobe overflows with a ludicrous amount of never-worn, outdated or just forgotten-about outfits. It is a sinful obsession I am about to put to good use. I always knew there was a reason for me being such a clothes’ hoarder. I guess this was it!
Until next time, I leave you all with “Ping An” (Peace)