Tomorrow marks the one year remembrance of the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan Province, China.
According to a recent news conference, China now says 5,335 students died or remain missing with 68,712 as the overall death toll and 18,000 not accounted for. Thousands are still displaced in shelter complexes as their towns and villages are being rebuilt in other areas of the province.
In remembrance of this day one year ago, all scenic tourist places in Sichuan are free to the public. No entrance fees will be charged.
But aside from that, the government here in Sicuan is keeping everything low-key. There is still a great deal of anger from parents whose children died in what they describe as shabbily built schools. They claim the collapse of the buildings is a result of corrupt officials who pocketed the extra cash and skimped on better, safer building materials and designs when the schools were first built.
Whether true or not, the feelings run deep, even among my students.
On the sports’ field today, as the Chihuahuas Little Flower and Little Old flopped on the grass in the heat, some of my 1st year students joined us.
The noontime is a chance for them to usual take a nap but on this day, we had a ping-pong tournament going on. Classmates came out to cheer on their friends. In between the rounds, they sat with me and practiced their English.
Luzhou is far from the earthquake zone but many of our students come from hard-hit areas. One young man, who never talks in class nor says a word, suddenly sat down with our small group.
“I am from the . . . . dizhen difang (earthquake place),” he finished in Chinese, not knowing the English.
“Yes!” his classmate John (Ma Zhilin) piped up, excited to use his English vocabulary. “Very severe,” he added, gravely.
He sat quietly, this young man called Cheng Tao, because as a 1st year student, last year he was in the earthquake itself. I’m sure there are many terrible memories of that day. Luckily, his parents’ home and his high school were saved from destruction but his town’s primary school collapsed.
“Many, many children dead,” he told me. “Parents not happy, still. They . . . are sad.”
His buddy, John, nodded his head.
There was a silence that fell upon us as no one knew what to say.
“I know it was very terrible,” I said. “I’m so happy your family is O.K. and you are in my class. We can help you feel better, right?”
Cheng Tao smiled.
“And what about the summer?” I went on, thinking to change the subject to something brighter. “What will you do? Will you go home?”
At this question, John beamed.
“We,” he pointed to Cheng Tao and himself, “are going to his hometown. We have an English summer school for primary students. They have no school building. They never study English. Your songs in class are very good! We will teach them your way. Use the . . . . body language.”
What a great idea!
Currently in the earthquake areas, there are no schools so students are merely meeting in large rooms built in their shelter homes. There is no air-conditioning or heating so currently, it’s a stifling place to hold classes, especially when there are 60-70 children in a room. Yet this is what students have been enduring during the school year.
This summer, they will have nothing to do as their make-shift little towns are usually located in the middle of nowhere. No stores, shops, community centers or anything much to do aside from sit around or play outside with no toys or sports’ equipment. The idea of having a summer school for the kids was a brilliant idea.
“And pay no money,” Cheng Tao said with conviction. “We help.”
“I think that’s wonderful, you two. You can do maybe 2 weeks.”
“No!” John said with fervor “We do for 1 month. Teach the simple English, like you teach us. Give the children a chance to have fun. They have nothing to do all day. It’s not good.”
John then burst into my rendition of “10 Little Indians,” which is “Ten Little Chinese.” He was joined by others in the group, even quiet Cheng Tao who rarely joined us in classroom singing.
After leaving the group, I, too, remembered our quake from a year ago. In my Chengdu apartment, the shaking had begun lightly but suddenly escalated into a more violent swaying. I had been messing about in the kitchen, getting my abandoned kitty’s powdered milk ready, while Little Flower was outside waiting for me to exit for our daily walk.
Of course, I eventually ran outside but it took a good 10 seconds for me to really be frightened. And even then, what we experienced in Chengdu was nothing compared to those north of us. Our buildings shook and swayed. A few flower pots came crashing down from window sills. Some walls cracked. But no one died or suffered severe injuries.
We were the lucky ones.
Now we have opportunities, such as my students, to help in small ways. Having an English language school to keep the children busy during the summer is quite a sacrifice for young college kids who are poor. Many try to find part-time jobs to help their parents pay for their schooling. Others just wish to enjoy time with their families whom they sorely miss, especially as 1st year students who have never been away from home before.
The summer holidays for those finishing their 1st year at college is very important and very precious. To think that John, who lives far from his classmate, is willing to join Cheng Tao for an entire month to help out is quite moving.
I have no doubt the two of them will not only have a rewarding experience as novice teachers but also as those who care enough about others to give their time and energy in such a much-needed way.
Bravo to you two, John and Cheng Tao! I am so proud to have been your foreign teacher for a year. May others follow in your footsteps.
From Luzhou, China, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.