It was 2:28 in the afternoon when the 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck, it was felt as far away as Hanoi, but I didn’t notice it because I was running late to class. A few of the students who walked in late to class, still rubbing the sleep of their noon nap from their eyes, asked their classmates if they had felt the earthquake. Nobody knew what they were talking about, and so we continued our classes as usual.
After class the news started to come in slowly. I remember the sickening feeling when I realized that every time I checked CNN’s website the death toll had risen, it had started at 10,000, but we knew that it would be much higher. It wasn’t until the end of the week that it reached 80,000 dead, and then it stopped increasing, even though the rescue efforts hadn’t ended.
I called my friend from Mianyang (near the epicenter) and was relieved to hear that his parents had survived. It was a small comfort in the midst of one of the largest disasters in my lifetime.
The next few days were incredibly difficult. It was very hard to understand what was going through the students’ minds. They had started hearing the reports about the thousands of students that had died in Sichuan. Many of them had still been napping in their dorms at 2:28. It was impossible not to look at our rough cement building and feel grateful that the quake had struck somewhere else, few schools in China could survive an earthquake so powerful.
My friends in Gansu (a province bordering Sichuan) had been in their apartment when it struck. Their new building started to fall apart as they ran down the stairs. For the next three days they slept outside on the sports fields with their students. No one was allowed inside out of fear that an aftershock would collapse the rest of the buildings. The school put up a few shower curtains and marked them as bathrooms, my friends were certain that disease would soon spread through the makeshift camp. The local government soon removed them from the area, which was now off-limits to foreigners, but their students were stuck living like that for weeks.
The whole of China entered a period of mourning. Outdoor activities and sports were banned for three days and most of China’s online entertainment sites switched to black and white, and shut down their non-earthquake features. I remember one student being strongly criticized by her classmates for accidentally wearing red (a celebratory color) during this period. A few days after the quake there was a moment of silence with Chinese characteristics; all the taxi drivers honked their horns for several minutes.
Almost a full year later I visited Wenchuan. The destruction there was unimaginable. Where we stood an entire school had shaken violently into pieces, leaving many of its victims buried inside. On the far side of the river we could see that every single building had collapsed. It had been completely destroyed, the town was just piles of bricks.
Many of the families had already moved out of the area. Not into new, gov’t provided homes, but to other cities around China. What was left for them in Wenchuan? There were no jobs, and there would be no homes for at least another year.
And yet, the people who remained were anything but hopeless. Some had even transformed their temporary shacks into small restaurants and guest houses. Their smiles seemed to say, “This is my home, now and forever.”
For more on some of the controversy about the schools collapsing read my post about Ai Weiwei’s investigation
For an excellent documentary looking at the aftermath of the disaster read my review of 1428
Also read the translation of a now censored editorial published this morning