A hazy moon filled the sky Wednesday night.
Those on the university campus were in for a better sleep than the rainy night before. With classes starting the next day, they would need it.
As I was wide awake, Little Flower and I took a midnight stroll outside our apartment gate to cruise through yet another community of campers.
In the small public park adjacent to my apartment compound, about 250 camped out in purchased portable tents or created their own makeshift ones from plastic tarp placed over trees. Some had dismantled cardboard boxes to lay across the park’s tiled surfaces, then spread out their bedding and nestled cozily underneath. Two had tied bedsheets to trees and created hammocks which they comfortably snoozed.
But unlike the university students, whose supplies were sparse, some of these nearby apartment residents came prepared.
On our walk down the paved walkways, LF and I passed cots, mattresses, and entire single beds (frames and all) lining the park’s paved courtyard. All ages were sleeping soundly under their comforters. In the early morning and evening hours, this area is used by the the elderly who come for their daily slow-moving exercises of taiji. Others, such as taditional dance or drumming clubs, practice here as well. With these somewhat stationary squatters on their territory, however, I wonder if they’ve had to find other places to go.
The park was still and quiet as we walked through, with most of those inside sleeping, but the narrow backstreet that runs next to it presented a different picture.
Four heavy wooden mahjong tables were positioned on the curbside. The seated players talked loudly while slurping jars of tea. Their small piles of betting money sat before them as they shuffled and slammed down tiles. A few observers looked on. One woman in nightclothes cuddled her little dog while watching the game. Another cradled and rocked her newborn baby.
I asked the young mother what floor she lived on.
“The 28th,” she replied.
While my apartment complex is quite old, with our concrete buildings only going to 5 or 6 floors, the fancy building next to the park is a grand, 40-story, two-tower wonder. It’s tiled in pretty pink and has a restaurant, children’s playroom and adult activity center on the ground floor. You can even make out an open-air garden on the rooftop.
She said her husband and parents, not to mention several of her upper-floor neighbors, were with her.
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
“Now, I’m not afraid,” she said, referring to the earthquake tremors which are currently quite small and far between. “But it’s safer for the baby.”
As I returned to my home, I thought about all these city folk, even tonight still camped outside under the half-moon sky. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, even at times jovial and full of cheerful camaraderie, but certainly not frightening or solemn. It almost seems to be the “in” thing in Chengdu to join your neighbors in this open-air adventure. So little personal tragedy is hovering over any of us.
But in my apartment, the TV tells a different story.
Channels are showing 24-hour coverage of rescue operations. I turn on one channel which has continuous scenes starting from Day One of the quake. Hours upon hours of footage show full-scale rescue efforts which are keeping all of China, and the world, updated on the latest from Sichuan. The news cameras are right alongside the military and volunteer teams who are working so diligently to find survivors. They capture every moment — the tragic, the hopeful and the miraculous.
I watch in the city of Beichuan as workers find 5 children still alive in their school. They are buried under a huge concrete slab that has landed above a pocket of space they are saved by.
First, their heads appear as the workers clear the rubble. The grade schoolers are given hardhats to wear while a crane lifts the heavy slab carefully upward. It breaks in half and precariously dangles over the children. Five men shout for the crane to go more slowly. Several others try to swing the dangling concrete to the side.
I hold my breath.
Finally, it is moved and no longer poses a threat. The workers can swiftly begin to carefully pull the children out from under and behind their desks. They’ve been trapped for 2 days. Their bodies are crunched onto their chairs. Two are squatting in a fetal position due to the tiny space they’ve been forced into.
The entire operation has taken 2 hours although the camera shows the initial rescue in 30 minutes.
So many of these demolished buildings were never structurally sound to begin with. Beams and walls that should have held up ceilings with more strength collapsed in seconds, leaving no one any time to escape. And some homes, such as those of Jason’s family, are built by the owners who hire cheap, countryside laborers. These workers have some expertise to create relatively safe homes but certainly not up to code standards for a disaster.
These scenes give us all an understanding of why the work cannot go faster. How desperate families are to find loved ones. How pressed for time everyone feels to reach those in need.
In Chengdu, I somehow feel many city-dwellers have forgotten that the light of this silvery moon shines down upon all of us. Perhaps it’s time to return home. Put your beds and mahjong tables back in their proper places and put all that extra energy into helping those hardest hit in the earthquake.
Until next time, “Ping An!” (Peace)