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).