Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Children's Day

How do you sit down and write about tragedy? It might take ten days before you'll let it out. Telling people over the phone can be cathartic and therapeutic, yet somehow dilutes the emotions of the day. Quick, write it down before it is lost.

50 km from the epicenter
Sunday, June 1st (Children's Day - the equivalent of every child's birthday, a day when parents celebrate children)

A group has formed outside the ruins of the elementary school. They are parents. Their children are still inside. It is Children's Day.

There is a clothesline of elementary school portraits and candid shots of the children in their favorite clothes. One is a dancer. Her father says:

"My daughter was the best dancer. She was so beautiful. She danced in our town and in neighboring towns. She always wanted to dance. Now she is dead. Look at that building. How could that have stood during an earthquake? Look at these walls. Sand. Look at this steel - how could this have held up a building? It is so flimsy. What do I tell my daughter?"

Above the photos, a banner has been hand-painted. It says:
"To our babies. Mom and Dad love you, we will be with you soon." and "Who will explain this to our children?"

In front, a small alter has been erected. Incense is burning, candles are lit, and handfuls of foods lay strewn across the table. Where one would normally see an alter covered in seeds or fruits, here I see cookies and gummies, the kinds of foods a five or six year old might choose as they head out for a journey.

How do I write about the faces of parents that have gone blank?
How do I write about an anger that is deeper and sharper than any I have ever witnessed?
How do I write about utter despair?

I came to this village with a group of ex-pats called "The Rainbow Project" to celebrate children's day with the displaced children in the refugee camp. We passed out toys, played games, sang songs, danced, and marveled at what fun can be had in the midst of rubble and loss. As the sun got hot and the kids headed back to their homes (tents), a few older girls took my by the hand and asked if our group would like to see the their school. I nodded, and we began walking down the empty road together. They pointed out three story buildings that had turned into one story buildings. The crumbled building where one of the girls (Wang Shan)'s mother used to sell shoes. A house where a soldier had died trying to retrieve the belongings of another girl's grandmother.

The first school we reached was the high school. One girl bravely walked in and began giving a guided tour of the destruction (This is where the students sleep. Many were taking an afternoon nap when the earthquake hit, and they died. This is the teacher's building, it is fine. This is the classroom building. 80 students died here...). I looked over to see Wang Shan crying - she had been next door, but her friends had been some of the 80 in the fallen building.

We walked on to the elementary school, where up to 200 children had died. On the way, we passed army tanks full of supplies, ghost-buster-like figures in full body suits spraying chemical cocktails onto ruins, and very little else. Two women passed us, sobbing uncontrollably. Parents. We reached the elementary school, and found the vigil spilling over the front lawn. They sat silently and intensely, commemorating Children's Day with their eyes on the ruins of their children's school.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Review of IronMan as told from Sichuan Province

Last night a few of my friends and I decided to indulge in a very American movie (Iron Man) in a very American-feeling place (air conditioned shopping mall in southern Chengdu) and just forget about everything for awhile. Here is my review of the movie:

In the movie, our hero, Iron Man, watches the news to figure out where to fight his next battle. He hears about a camp of refugees left behind by international media, full of injured families and orphaned children looking for their parents. In light of this past weekend's experiences (next post), this all hits a little too close to home for us.

To add a visceral element to the experience, the stadium seating and digital surround sound made our seats rattle whenever anything blew up on screen (often)... it felt like an earthquake. My friends and I glanced at each other and towards the exits, mentally preparing evacuation plans.

Thankfully, we did adjust to the rattling seats (as one does adjust over time to things shaking all around them). The movie helped this process by quickly leaving behind its serious inclinations and happily digressing into a series of Robert Downey Jr. vs. Jeff "The Dude" Bridges robot battles, which I could not relate to in the least. The corny dialogue flowed and the improbable action sequences commenced. There. Now we could finally relax and let go. This was fiction.


Friday, May 30, 2008


Words have begun to escape me in the midst of these waves of tragedy and is what happened two days ago.


Qili Village
- In the middle of a village that was in the mid-impact range of the earthquake (only some of the houses are destroyed, most still stand with huge cracks in the walls, the kindergarten fell down, but the rest of the school is still standing, etc.), we gave out our second round of microloans. These loans were supposed to be given the day after the earthquake.

Today the mood is emotional - excited, celebratory, and mournful all at once. The borrowers have prepared a beautiful ceremony honoring our presence and relief work in their village. A man sings while his 6 year old daughter dances. We give out 8 more microloans...(a mere drop in the bucket of a tragedy displacing 5 million people, a part of my brain chides. my heart quiets it as we listen to the community planning its own period of reconstruction and regrowth. we can help in some small way.)

One of the women who received a loan for rabbits during the first lending ceremony stands up to speak. She tells us that when the earthquake hit, it destroyed the rabbit raising area and much of her roof. She sold the rabbits and raised a new roof, while sleeping in a tent in her courtyard. She is also currently putting her daughter through university, she proudly mentions.

I meet a boy who is now known in town as being the fastest child in kindergarten. When the ground began to tremble, he made it out first, followed the rest of the children. Then the school crumbled.

There are moments of hope, too. Our lending ceremony had to be moved next to the courtyard where it was held last time because the courtyard no longer exists. No earthquake damage here, it is now filled with a rabbit raising compound built by our youngest loan recipient, an 18 year old who has decided to stay in town and be the cashier of the lending project rather than migrate to an urban area and leave his family. His new compound withstood the earthquake, and his rabbits are fine. He was the one who had called me just after the first initial earthquake to check up on my safety and invite us back to the village.

The thousands of aftershocks that have struck in the weeks following the earthquake have felt unnerving and annoying from our 6th story high rise in Chengdu. In Qili, they continue to threaten lives. People point at crumbling walls and cracked ceilings and explain that a few more aftershocks will probably take them all the way down. There is no point in rebuilding right now if the earth is just going to keep shaking.

Selflessness - The Rabbit King and Queen (our community partners through the Rabbit King Poverty Alleviation Research Center) have orchestrated most of the relief efforts in their area since the earthquake, and we have been impressed and thankful. Then we saw their factory. Now we are stunned.

The entire factory (which includes their offices, dorms for workers, school rooms, cafeteria, and personal home) has crumbled. Most of their rabbits were either crushed or ran away. Their staff is working in a tent in the middle of an alley. In the midst of this, they took the time to organize a relief effort for foreigners and a miniature village. My heart and brain cannot come to terms with the depth of their selflessness.

They understand at a very deep level, however, how their ability to function as a business and organization affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of rural villagers in the area. Rabbit raising in villages relies on the supply chain that the Rabbit King orchestrates. Without him, his factory, and staff, their mini businesses and our microfinance project would flounder. With tears in her eyes the Rabbit Queen explained that they have always been the ones to give donations, to bring aid, to organize efforts...they are not accustomed to being in a position of need (another stunning statement coming from the two people who are literally China's pinnacle story of rags to riches).

We commit to trying to help them in any way we can as they rebuild their factory, knowing that they would be the last to directly ask for help.

Friday, May 23, 2008


How do I begin to describe how much brighter life has gotten in the last few days?

Here is an example:
I am volunteering my evenings to work on a trauma debriefing team. We meet with relief workers as they return from disaster-stricken areas. Today I debriefed a team of young men who had flown in from all over China intending to hike into remote villages not yet reached by aid workers. When they discovered that landslides and aftershocks made the path too dangerous for anyone to get through, they set down their tent in a local refugee camp for the night.

There, they noticed no one was smiling, no children were playing. They spotted an empty space cleared for tent use and persuaded the local officials to let them rope it off as an official "play zone." Kids who had stared at them with shock and skepticism as they initially entered the camp came running when they saw part of their refugee area turning into an space for music and games and limbo contests. The men had brought with them 1 guitar, 1 kazoo, and a sack of balloons. Instead of musical chairs, they played musical water bottles. One piece of rope managed to make its way into multiple games for multiple purposes. A limbo stick was made from a tree branch. At lunchtime, the kids had to be forcefully told to go "home" (back to their individual family's blue tent, shared with another family), they then came running back to play through the afternoon. When we spoke, the young men were hoarse from yelling and organizing the children, but kept going until night settled onto the camp. Exhausted, they said: "ok! let's do this again tomorrow! 10am, on the play field!" The children reluctantly went home and the relief workers fell into their makeshift beds.

At 6:30am, their tent started rustling. The children had gathered outside, ready to play again. By 8am, everyone was on the field, and another day of intense play began. Today is Friday and these workers just returned. Without meaning to, they spent 5 days organizing an impromptu summer camp for refugee children in the middle of Sichuan's quaking mountains. There are more layers to this story. Parents started gathering to watch the odd sight of their children laughing and smiling for the first time since the earthquake, and became protective of the field. They made sure that it was permanently closed off to all other activities other than play. Inspired, the principal of the local school came out of the woodwork from his own period of grieving and, with the help of these young men, organized all the teachers around him to open a make-shift school in the blue refugee camp tents. By the time the relief workers left, children had resumed classes.

As the "debriefer" on the other side of this story, I met 4 sunburned, dirty, beaming young men. They still had enough energy to make sure I got down the details of every one of their stories, noted all of the current needs of the refugee camp, and even demonstrated their limbo skills. I am awed, inspired, and so glad to be in Sichuan. The days are getting so much brighter.

(abc news thinks so too. these are my guys!)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Moment of Silence, Night in the Field

Every day is full. The last 24 hours taught me lessons in uniquely Chinese aspects of mourning and panic.

One week anniversary of the earthquake. Just before 2:28pm another minor aftershock (one of thousands in the last week) rattled our building. We heard sirens blaring, car horns honking, and saw people in a stand-still on the street. Another "big one", we thought, grabbing our emergency bags (constantly packed, now, with passport, money, water, peanuts, clean underwear, camera, and a journal) and the puppy, and ran down our six flights of stairs to the ground level. For once, however, we were the only ones in a state of panic. The blaring sirens, horns, and people were observing a "moment of silence" for the earthquake victims. In a particularly Chinese manner, it was neither a single moment, nor silent, but it definitely got the point across.

Later we went to a vigil in the main square of town. Thousands gathered with candles lit. This "vigil" was unlike any I had been to. It was loud and raucous with shouts of "China! Fight On!", and "Sichuan! Fight!". The energy was incredible. People poured in from the streets to join marching lines and tightening circles, where they yelled and chanted in turn. Under the giant white statue of the late Chairman Mao, a Red Cross vest had been stuck onto the end of a pole and was being waved like a flag. Below it, a team had set up a tent collecting donations of water and clothing. I was interviewed by a Chinese reporter who said "I'll bet this isn't what you had expected a vigil would be like." He was right.

I saw a man wearing an "I Love China More Than Ever" t-shirt. I stopped him and asked if I could take his picture. He nodded solemnly (a change from the usual excitement at the opportunity for a photoshoot), and I looked over to see his wife standing nearby with tears in her eyes. They had lost someone. Many people. A house? A family? A community? In the midst of rally cries and panicked nights, it is easy to forget about the real loss of this catastrophe. Over 30,000 lives, and counting. Walking down the street, I see the eyes of those who have lost someone. They are wide, red, and glassy. They look naked.

Just an hour later, back home and making family calls, we received warnings from friends, colleagues, and the TV saying that another big one - really! - was coming. Emergency bags and puppy were tucked under our arms as we evacuated for the second time that day. We set up camp back in "The Field" (our field, we now say lovingly), and waited as friends from Sweden, Germany, Argentina, and China came to join us at our impromptu sleepover. We were also joined by hundreds of families fleeing their buildings in the surrounding area. Slept through the night. Only one major aftershock (5.1), but nothing note-worthy. Our hips and backs ache, but a few nights of that is a small price to pay for safety (we keep telling ourselves).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Next: Godzilla.

Here's what I wrote to my boss today:
Another 6.0 quake hit us, followed by pouring rain, a thunderstorm, crazy winds, fears of major flooding, rumors of potential epidemics from the dead bodies being near water sources, and potential damage to nuclear reactor sites nearby (built on/near a fault line!? come on, china).

We're starting to joke that we feel like the characters in the beginning of the new King Kong movie, who keep facing larger and more ridiculous scenarios all on one island (bad weather leads to crazy insects, which lead to massive gorilla attack, which leads to a dinosaur battle. of course.)

Spirits are up, though, and we've got enough food and water to last awhile in case we need it to. Registering at the U.S. Consulate tomorrow.
That's the news from the ground! Off to donate some supplies down the street.


I dreamed last night that I was a trapeze artist or (maybe) someone who had broken onto the set of Peter Pan and rigged themselves to the wires. While the real show went on in front of a curtain, I perched in the rafters backstage and practiced falling, then "flying" like the stage Peter Pan would, using silver wires hooked to my waist. I sang while my stomach dropped again and again from the falls. I remember thinking my voice was nicer than I thought it could be, but was also glad this was just practice and I still had time to improve.

I woke up to hear that another major aftershock had happened during the night, big enough to send Kasen running into Kate's room yelling "Did you feel that?? It was big!" I had slept right through it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Processing, scared

It's 1am, and my bed is shaking as another aftershock rattles chengdu. It's day 5 after the earthquake and it's getting hard to calm down. We go about our daily lives now, knowing that strong aftershocks come and go, rattling us, but leaving Chengdu's buildings in tact so far.

My friend went into Bei Chuan to do relief work near the epicenter two days ago. He told me about seeing this picturesque adobe-colored town flattened in its valley between mountain peaks. He heard voices coming from inside the collapsed buildings, they became fewer as the day went on. He helped rescue two people, including a girl who was kept alive by her parents bodies pressed above her. He stepped on bodies. Not 24 hours after his return, another 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit the area, resulting in further landslides and death. Thank God he is back safely.

Similarly, I am dumbfounded by the luck that Kate and I had in not being in the epicenter area when the earthquake hit. Though it's a little-known part of a small mountainous region of China (not even a blip on most people's maps), Kate and I became intimately familiar with this area during the last three weeks as we hiked Qing Cheng Mountain (now majorly cut off from outside transport lines and buried), and went horseback riding in Song Pan (the road and rest stops we used to and from no longer exist.)

Honestly, I'm getting a little scared again. Aftershocks keep hitting, and one can't help but wonder how many 5.0 magnitude earthquakes these buildings can withstand...

The government is doing a great job keeping people informed through text messages on cell phones. The most recent text informed us that the road to our project sites in Dayi was closed except for government use. Another told us that the water contamination stories were scams. Good to know. I have a lot of gatorade to drink now.

The mood here is eery. The funeral outside my home continues. The bright crepe paper wheels are still leaning against the bushes outside, and the family has sat in vigil in their tent for over 24 hours now. Candles are lit. The smell of cooking oil in the air. No wailing, just quiet sitting.

It's hard not to stay glued to the news. I try to go about my day normally then cry and cry over a story telling how a parent dug through rubble with bare hands for days on end until their bloodied hands reached the cold body of their child.

How is Chengdu looking so normal in the face of this? Are we all pretending?

Relief efforts are gaining momentum, and give me glimmers of hope. The fact that my ngo's president is placing so much emphasis on sustainable relief efforts and long-term thriving communities helps me know that we won't be in-and-out handing out water bottles and leaving. We are in it to stay.

It's late, my heart hurts. My eyes are swollen. Sleep now.