Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering the earthquake

Here is a brief description about what happened to us in Chengdu one year ago, something I wrote to tell friends and family. Our experience of course was nothing compared to what the people (who lost so many loved ones) up in the quake epicenter area experienced, something a hundred thousand times worse: 

As you all know the earthquake happened on Monday May 12th, 2008 at 2.28 pm in the afternoon. This was our daughter Emy's birthday and luckily, because of this we were all in Chengdu city and not up in the mountains where I had planned to take visiting friends. 

The day before the earthquake Paddy had just come home from Yunnan in time to celebrate Emy's big day. On the morning of the 12th we got Emy out of bed and celebrated her birthday in the Swedish way with presents and treats. She and Burton went off to school and I and Paddy spent a leisurely day catching up on talk and work. Just the week before I had been away in other parts of China working for 34 days straight. The day after I arrived back our guests from Sweden arrived and Paddy left for Yunnan. The 12th was a fantastically lovely day, sunny and warm and wonderful. I had sent our guests off to visit a temple in another part of town. I was feeling exhausted and loving the peace and quiet at home. For the evening we had planned to take Emy swimming, then all join up for a dinner at her favorite restaurant. 

At 2.28 pm I was sending off some pictures on the computer when the house started to rumble. It was like the whole building was in spin-cycle in the washing machine and something had gone terrible wrong. I knew immediately that it was an earthquake and shouted to Paddy in the next room. We both ran to our front door which is made of metal and thought we would be safe there. But the rumbling had turned into a roaring boil and it was like being inside of a popcorn maker. The noise was deafening. We live on the 13th floor and the house was being shook back and forth and everything was bouncing up and down and crashing on to the floor. All the other earthquakes I have been in (in California) lasted only 10-20-30 seconds. This one didn't want to stop. Paddy shouted that we should try and get out of the house. We were convinced the house was going to come down - working in China for so many years has made us all too sceptical and cynical about how houses are constructed and if the proper methods and materials were used. We both flew down the 13 flights of stairs in our bare feet (there was no time to take anything with us). I was still in my pyjamas. Bits and pieces of cement were falling around us and on every floor we met more people trying to get out. The earthquake finished just after we got out the front door where we met hundreds of other people streaming out of all the buildings around us. It had lasted for a full three minutes. All we could think of after this was to find our kids, our friends and get away from any building as soon as possible. Paddy braved running up 13 flights of stairs again to quickly get our passports, money, shoes, computers and to lock our door which we had left wide open. We had no idea if any large aftershocks would bring the whole house done. All the time he was up there I could see the windows quietly vibrating. It felt like the earth was a living, breathy animal, panting after an enormous exertion. He was gone for about five minutes, when he came down again a large aftershock hit and we all ran out into the streets. 

We quickly bought water and then two bicycles, shops were closing up and people were trying to contact friends and relatives by cellphone. Mobile connections weren't working and the streets were clogged with vehicles and people trying to find each other. Luckily no one was showing panic, even though we have heard that a small number of people in Chengdu leap out ofbuildings in fear and died that way. We made our way to where we could find our friends and children. Luckily everyone was safe and sound. Only then did we learn where the epicenter was -- just outside of the city in the mountains to the NW and that it had been enormous (7.9 magnitude). We also learnt name of towns and cities that I had never heard of: Beichuan, Hanwang, Yingxiu. Quickly we heard that two large schools had collapsed on top of 900 students. 

As time went on the numbers of casualities increased and unspeakable horrors were revealed about what had actually happened.  It is incomprehensible how entire cities can be crushed to rubble within a few seconds.

After the earthquake we have experienced fantastic warmth and generosity from all people around us (thank-you Kim, Johnny, Barry and Carin!) and we have all, Chinese and foreigners alike, gotten to know each a little better and been pulled closer together. I love Sichuan even more today than before and don't want to leave the area. Fun-loving Chengdu isn't the happy-go-lucky city it once was and everyone seems to be suffering from a collective depression, but day by day things get a little better. The Chinese people are incredibly resilient and tough and outside the city everyone is concentrating on getting through each day, minute by minute. It is too painful otherwise. 

 The kids have also been fantastic and seem to be doing all right after a few ups and downs. At the moment they are concentrating on getting through their last two weeks of school. During the actual earthquake they were thankfully outside of their school building doing sports. They felt the earth rumble and shake (it sounded strange they've said) and watched the school clocktower sway back and forth in an odd way, the lightning rod a top whipping frenetically back and forth. They didn't feel scared at that time and their teachers were very calm and responsible. Only afterwards when they joined up with their parents and witnessed all the adults acting scared and weird did they feel fear. Something for me to think about in the next disaster. Up on the 13th floor when the earthquake hit and I could hear the buildings crashing together and our terrace ripping apart, I experienced true, primitive anxiety. I wasn't at all brave, I was terribly scared and realized that I very much like being alive. I was no hero during this time and it taught me a lot about myself and my weaknesses.  

When Emy realized there would be no birthday celebration this day she said "This is the worst birthday of my entire life". In the evening, when we and a hundred plus other people had all gathered together in a garden to spend the night outdoors out of range of potentially falling buildings, Barry Jones got everyone to sing Happy Birthday to her in English and Chinese. It was very moving when we all knew that not so far from the city there were thousands of children lying dead, their parents distraught, searching for them. When Emy and Burton were allowed to drink a lot more soda pop than usual during the first earthquake week Emy said: "This is the best earthquake I've ever had".
Written June 2008

Anniversary of May 12th, 2008 Earthquake

Empty house, near Yingxiu May 2009 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Yesterday (blogspot runs on American time I think) was the first anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake. It was an emotional day for me: For one, my daughter turned double-digit and I felt that time was slipping away and that she was getting too big too soon. (I've hopefully got another 9 years with her before she moves away from home so some comfort there). Secondly, the memories from the earthquake last year are still all too fresh and recently accentuated by our visit through the epicenter at Yingxiu.

Paddy and I (tearfully) watched the documentaries and commemoration on Chinese TV and saw how the government eulogized both the victims and their families but also glorified the party and the government's efforts to save lives and make everything right again. Better to concentrate on the positive and not all there still has to be done. Or all of the people that have fallen between the cracks and aren't reached by the enormous state reconstruction apparatus. Every other picture was one of the flag of the Communist Party and or the seal of the PRC. I suppose no different than the number of American flags that were shown after Katrina or 9-11 (Wenchuan and Katrina however were natural disasters with no political agenda). In Sweden we are more discreet in showing our flag and equating disasters and tragedies too closely or patriotically with our government (even after the 1994 MS Estonia tragedy or the 2004 tsunami). 

Driving through the quake area the other day I sometimes felt like one of those "morbid tourists" that I wrote about on Feb 2. The TV showed them yesterday too, how Chinese busloads and caravans of cars and motorcycles visit Yingxiu and are guided around amongst the still highly visible ruins by the teenagers and young people that survived the earthquake. In the beginning their guides are cheery and strong and tell how boulders the size of small houses rained down upon their heads and how entire mountains slid into and over the city, crushing and smothering everything in its wake. After a while, when things get more personal and they relate what happened to them and their families and the people around them they break down crying and can hardly continue. It is all still too horrible to think about and I wonder how long these young people - just at the beginning of their lives - will have the energy and emotional balance to keep on talking about something so close to the bone. I hope that they will be able to move on eventually to a life that doesn't revolve around the earthquake everyday. But like victims of any huge disaster or tragedy loosing a large portion of your family is something that will alter your life forever. 

As 14.28 crept up on the clock yesterday (the time of the earthquake) I began to feel a little anxious and wanted to have everything in order. I made sure that this year I had already showered and dressed and that I had my shoes on (last year I was still in my pyjamas, lazing about, and that's how I ran out of the house). When 14.28 arrived the commentary on the TV stopped completely and the cameras panned slowing around the epicenter in total silence for one minute. Complete quiet in China is always something particularly peculiar and the effect was very unsettling and moving. It even seemed that the city around me here in Chengdu was quieter than usual, but a look out the window showed me that no, most people were actually going about things as usual, loading cars with goods, bicycling, chatting, talking on their cell phones. 

We spent the evening at the Bookworm participating in the earthquake anniversary benefit. As ever my extreme admiration for Peter Goff, the Bookworm staff and ALL people, too numerous to mention, Chinese and foreign, that have helped out at Sichuan Quake Relief over the past 12 months, finding earthquake victims who have "fallen between the cracks" and helping them in ways both big and small. Within just a day of the earthquake their relief efforts began and they are still going on, with numerous short and long term projects that really make a difference in people's lives. All profits from last night went directly to quake relief projects. (Burton and his band Ze Puppies played too and everyone sang Happy Birthday to Emy, thanks for the yummy cake Kim Dallas!). Last night was also the release of Abigail Washburn's (of Sparrow Quartet fame) and David Liang's CD Afterquake. The CD mixes the actual sounds of the rebuilding with the voices of relocated school children, talking and singing. Truly moving. More here

The Sichuan government, sister provinces and cities all over China, and the enormous efforts of all people in the quake areas have also accomplished a truly heroic amount of reconstruction this past year. There is so much to do it just seems so overwhelming...you are all TRULY AMAZING.

Lest we forget: The Wenchuan Earthquake killed up to 90,000 people, injured 400,000 and made 5 million people homeless (5 million is the entire population of Denmark). A tragedy of this proportion can't be put to right over night, work will go on for many, many years so please remember how people still need our help and support. 

Emy turns 10!

Happy Birthday Emy!  Grattis på födelsedagen! 

Emy turned 10 today and is over the moon with fun on her birthday: apple pie, lot's of new clothing, a new bicycle, a cool Swiss Army knife and a new Cd of this year's Swedish Melodifestival. She also just beat me and Paddy in a game of Round-the-World Basketball. We're off to the Bookworm now for a barbecue dinner and cake but also to listen to Burton sing again with Ze Puppies for the Earthquake Anniversary Benefit. That bad old earthquake really ruined Emy's special day last year but she was very good about it when she learned how it had affected other people''s lives and families in much, much worse ways. 

Emy you are the best daughter I could ever imagine having, everyday you make our lives so much more fun and interesting and your character, cool sense, quirky humor, generosity and general all round goodness makes me puff up with pride and love everyday. We also think you're darned cute. We love you! Congratulations! Kram Mamma, Pappa, Burton och Mormor