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.