3:30 p.m. today saw the streets, parks and apartment compounds overrun by exuberant gradeschool kids.
While students in China should have been in class at this time, another warning hit the news: Strong aftershocks might be coming from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Be careful!
Ah, do I sense another repeat of last Monday when the same such announcement sent Chengdu residents dashing outside for the cover of open sky?
Just a few hours ago, I happened to be in the middle of all this aftershock ruckus. I was returning from a short trip to the nearby grocery store when our small park, still layered in both abandoned and fully-equipped tents, exploded with the kids from the nearby primary school.
“Wei shenme ni meiyou ke? (Why don’t you have class?)” I asked the nearest boy who was racing down the sidewalk.
He stopped to explain that aftershocks were to come, starting at 4 p.m., so the school dismissed everyone.
I’m not really one to believe that a tremor or a quake can be predicted but that’s my opinion. From Chinese earthquake experts, I guess it’s another story.
Even 16 days after May 12, we have a sizeable number of people in the city still sleeping outdoors. As of this past weekend, however, city police cleared some public areas. At Sichuan University, there is not a single tent up on the main campus grounds. Only down university sidestreets can you find them. But in smaller Chengdu parks and along the grassy canal routes, the tents and people remain.
This afternoon’s warning must have had those who haven’t yet packed up their belongings quite satisfied that they’re dwellings will be in full use once again.
In our small nearby public park, there was too much activity going on for me to miss out on the event so I took a cruise through the crowds.
Kids, parents, grandparents, the elderly, mothers with infants, and dismissed teachers filled every nook and cranny. They were seated at tables playing mahjong, resting on their tent beds, positioned on stools, lined up long the park’s walkway curbs, reading newspapers or calling friends on their cellphones.
I found my 4th floor neighbor out with her granddaughter and we waved to one another. The kids begged me to take their pictures as they ran wild, happy to unexpectedly be released from classes. One sweet little boy sat on a plastic sheet with his grandparents as they cheerfully played cards together. Children in China are so busy with their homework and studies. This was a rare, special time for the three of them and they were savoring every minute.
It’s always to be expected, whenever I go out among so many Chinese, that someone wants to practice their English. Sure enough, I ran into an older gent who was eager to chat a bit with the foreigner.
“Tony” (I never did ask his Chinese name) is a retired businessman who lives in the apartment complex next to mine. He explained that he was on his way to the gym when all the fuss broke loose so he thought he’d come to the park and take a look.
“Do you really think there will be a strong aftershock from 4 to 6?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I came to see that big apartment building. I heard someone say that if we have another earthquake, the building will move something like 20 degrees. I’ve never seen that before. I don’t want to miss it!”
Tony expectantly gazed upward at the 40-story apartment complex that was just a block away.
“So are you going to stay here two hours and wait?” I questioned.
“No, maybe until 5 or 5:30. After that, I’ll go to the gym.”
Tony turned his eyes once again to the apartments towering above us, anxious to see his hoped-for sight become a swaying reality.
Passing by Tony, I was suddenly grabbed by a boisterous elderly granny who pulled me into her makeshift tent to sit. She and her family of 5 had originally left their sheltered spot for home last Friday, but that was before the Sunday aftershock sent them back outside again. They’d been here for 3 days now. Her daughter told me living on the 8th floor was just too tiring for the older folk to go up and down the stairs all the time. It was too uncomfortable to sleep at home when the building quaked due to the constant tremors so best to sleep elsewhere.
Their surroundings were quite cozy with 3 full beds, a sofa, a table, chairs and cups for tea. Then again, it might have been their jovial attitude toward the whole thing that made it seem so. They were just a very happy family. Right before I excused myself to go home, Granny invited me to their family dinner. I’d have taken her up on the offer except that I had the dog as yet to pick up from the vet’s and my Chinese homework to do.
In my own apartment complex, the atmosphere was much the same upbeat feeling.
Since many of our tarp shelters remain, as well as the cots, chairs, beds, tables and sofas that rest under them, there were plenty of seats for people to relax on. I noticed one family was returning their bedding to their store-bought tent. For about 5 days, they’d been staying in their apartment but their tent remained on our compound’s limited lawn space, just in case it might be needed later on.
I was truly sorry to see my 3rd floor neighbor in his wheelchair being brought out once again into the courtyard. He was placed next to the rather flimsy shelter which his son and daughter-in-law had set up 2 weeks ago. His frail wife sat inside on a straw mat, listening to the radio. I truly hope this scare proves to be nothing more than empty rumors and they return to their apartment. Living outdoors without access to bathroom facilities is not a pleasant thought for those not in the best of health.
It’s hard for me not to participate in the excitement along with everyone else. Joining in on this amazing cultural experience is a once-in-a-lifetime event. But there’s a feeling of shame in all our enjoyment which I just can’t shake. Already, the suffering is so great in the northern areas among people who will truly be affected by any aftershocks that may come our way. There might be more deaths, more landslides, more threat of floods, more midnight evacuations from dangerous areas. Our northern Sichuanese brothers and sisters are weary. They need to rest. They need to feel safe.
This city has done an outstanding job in volunteerism, collecting and sending relief supplies, organizing domestic and foreign earthquake teams, caring for the tens-of-thousands who are now housed in the city hospitals, and constantly informing the public of the disaster zone situation.
Can we do more?
Maybe a start would be not so eagerly jumping the gun at every aftershock warning from the Chinese press. I think our overzealous energy could be better spent elsewhere.
From Chengdu, I wish you all a “Ping An”! (Peace)
REMINDER FOR AID IN BUYING TENTS, VACCINES, AND OTHER SUPPLIES
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake