It’s been over two weeks since what is now classified as an 8.0 earthquake struck 55 miles north of here. Every day we still experience aftershocks, although the number per day is slowly decreasing. In the last two weeks, there have been over 7,000 of them. Of those, 182 have been a 4.0 or more in magnitude. Five have been of a magnitude of 6.0 or greater.

The death toll is over 68,000, with 21,000 still missing and over 5 million homeless. The threat of dams collapsing, and lakes and rivers overflowing is quite high. Because of the debris from the earthquake, rivers are backing up, flooding villages, and threatening to spill out and cause further devastation. With the rainy season on the horizon, this is the new danger.

Over 10,000 students have been killed, with the vast majority being from poor areas. In the same towns, students who attended more wealthy schools survived because those schools did not collapse. Class politics is playing itself out here, as parents from poorer areas are asking why their schools were so shoddy that they collapsed, while those from more wealthy schools just down the street survived. After days of protests, a group of parents planned a march to Chengdu to demand answers. At first, a local Communist Party official pled with them, from his knees no less, not to march to the capital. They also offered the parents $4,500 per child if they would just keep quiet. Finally, they corralled the protesting parents onto a bus and drove them to a meeting with local Party officials, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of going over local officials’ heads. The initiative of the parents could lead to a wider evaluation of the role of money in deciding who lives and dies, but that’s only if they are successful in their efforts. As of yet the Chinese media is ignoring this dimension of the story. All of China is so head-over-heels in love with the soldiers and the government’s response to the destruction that bringing to light the class dimension of this tragedy is about as likely as China granting independence to Tibet.

On Monday I was at the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) school, and I met a group of students and faculty who had just returned from doing volunteer work at the epicenter. They had brewed up huge vats of Chinese herbs for victims of the quake. Some of our students have also gone to volunteer. We have heard they are getting so many volunteers, they are turning people away, and only accepting Communist Party members.

Many people have fled Chengdu. One estimate is that a third of this city of 11 million have left. A good deal of them have chosen to sleep in their cars outside the city. Of those who remain, a significant percentage are sleeping in the streets. People have constructed makeshift tents in any space available: parks, along riverbanks, besides roads, in parking lots and empty fields. They use tarps and canopies, big pieces of plastic, grass mats, and string to construct their new homes.


Tree & Shelter

Side of the rode

Although the original earthquake did not cause any buildings to collapse here, people see what happened a forty minutes’ drive northwest, and they’re scared. They don’t want to end up under twelve stories of rubble. They are being Better Safe Than Sorry.

A week ago, after 11 at night, Mr. Yang, our boss, knocked on our door and told us the radio was reporting that an aftershock of between 6 and 7 was expected that night, or the next day, and that we should therefore not stay in our apartment, but rather sleep in the hotel next door. It was only safe to sleep on the first floor – our apartment is on the third – but no rooms were available, so we’d have to sleep in the lobby. We spent the night with several other foreign teachers, blankets and pillows spread out on the floor, and with hotel workers milling about late into the night, and early the next morning, talking, watching television, listening to the radio, pacing about. You could say people are rather high strung these days. Each aftershock reminds people of the earthquake, which reminds people of the images of the devastation in Wenchuan, Dujiangyan, and elsewhere, which is broadcast on every TV station here 24/7.

We’re caught between our understanding of science and our opinions, and the views of the people around us. The next day’s New York Times had an article on-line which said the rumor of the impending aftershock was unsubstantiated. It wasn’t. It was put out by a group of Chinese seismologists. The problem was, they issued it for the area around the epicenter, not for Chengdu. This was later clarified on the local radio, but by that time, anyone who hadn’t already been sleeping outside was, including most of our campus. And, of course, it’s been raining.

Despite the clarification that the warning of an aftershock did not apply to Chengdu, Mr. Yang insisted that we spend a second night in the hotel, this time separately, with several men in one room, and several women in the other. We didn’t want Mr. Yang to “lose face” over this, but we can’t sleep very well next door, and chose instead to stay in our apartment. At four in the morning that night, an aftershock hit, loud enough to wake people up, make people scream, and cause dogs to bark, but not to do any damage.

This has been our life the last two weeks. A kind of hysteria has taken hold of people here, and every time there’s the rumble of an aftershock, people scream and run outside. With hundreds and hundreds of aftershocks, this can become exhausting. In my mind, the 8.0 earthquake that struck two weeks ago did not topple any buildings in Chengdu so, unless the building you are in was seriously compromised by the initial quake, you do not have much to worry about when there is a short aftershock of considerably less intensity.

Of course going through a trauma like this is not an entirely rational or logical process. A deeper, darker part of one’s mind lurks in the background, challenging the rational, and sometimes overtaking it. During the last couple of weeks I have occasionally been haunted by images in my mind of our building collapsing when it begins shaking. I know that our building will not collapse from a minor aftershock, but sitting on the couch as the building starts to tremble, occasionally images of the floor giving way or the ceiling falling in emerge in my consciousness. It’s this fear that competes with my rational mind. And of course part of me feels it would be ridiculous to stubbornly insist on staying in our apartment, only to die when the whole building collapsed. Partly for this reason, usually when our hosts feel there is a threat that requires us to relocate, we do, even though our own assessment of the situation is different.

For a while over the last two weeks I have had an internal struggle between my rational mind, and my irrational fears. Those haunting images of being buried beneath collapsing buildings competed with my logical assessment of the likelihood of this occurring. In talking this through with Lara, I realized that I was displacing this irrational fear onto the people camping outside. Look at how ridiculous they I are, I thought. Living outside, under a plastic tarp, for days on end, for no logical reason. These people became the embodiment of my own irrational fears, and I, with my reason, was above that. Silly fools. Once I brought this inner conflict to consciousness, I felt less antagonistic to the people sleeping outside.

On Sunday I was giving final exams, sitting with four students having a conversation in English. Suddenly the whole classroom building began shaking. I felt impervious, jaded, and confident. The three students who were not speaking got nervous, but the student speaking seemed unaware and kept on going, and I let her, even as I could hear students in the hall screaming and running out of the building. This was no garden variety aftershock. It was serious enough that I felt it was right on the verge of requiring getting out of the building. In the first few days, a couple of the aftershocks got me up and out the door. But after several a day, sometimes several an hour, over the course of two weeks, you grow accustomed to them. You learn that nothing happens except that the building shakes for a little while. After less than a minute, it stops. And this is what happened this time. The building shook a little, then it stopped. That’s it. Over and over, and over. The important thing is that nothing major happens here.

I found out later that this was one of the bigger aftershocks, collapsing 70,000 buildings at the epicenter, injuring about 500 people, and killing eight. But this is the important thing which most of Chengdu seems to be missing. The damage, death, and destruction is not happening here. It did not when the 8.0 quake hit, and it has not in any of the hundreds of aftershocks since. It would be a better use of resources to send Chengdu’s tents, and tarps, canopies and rope, north, to the people that can really use them, and for us to all get on with our lives, and helping the people that really need it.