Tuesday, May 13, 2008

When the Earth Moves

Yesterday afternoon, Cherry and I were in the ancient port neighborhood of Ciqikou, following up leads for a magazine article I will write. Just as we stopped to check out an old imperial school turned into a teahouse, we suddenly felt dizzy. Or at least that's what I thought the problem was... at first. Similar to the feeling of a drunken stupor or vertigo, my brain seemed convinced that the earth beneath my feet was weaving back and forth. Then, as we watched a look of sheer horror spread across the faces of the Chinese tourists all around us, I began to realize that this might be a more serious problem:

The earth was moving beneath my feet.

The tourists began to surge back up the narrow, ancient alleyway that leads into the depths of Ciqikou (Tse-chee-koh) town. I pulled Cherry and myself under the dilapidated eaves of the imperial school. In China, the veneer of the past is much less dangerous than the mobs of the over-populated present. Despite that sickly feeling of vertigo that came and went for about five minutes, I didn't feel particularly endangered. I figured that although typical Chinese construction methods of the past sixty years or so are notoriously shoddy, at least we were under the relatively strong door frame of a sturdy old building, with only a thin tile roof above us. Rescuers would have little debris to remove, should worst come to worst. My greatest worry at the time, however, was that since the earthquake seemed to be fairly mild, there might be a worse shock yet to come. It was only some fifteen minutes later that we began to hear the reports that Chongqing was hardly the epicenter of the event.

In the bamboo encrusted, panda-infested mountains at the edge of the Sichuan basin, 60 km west of the provincial capital of Chengdu which is itself a further four hours drive west of Chongqing, the 7.9 Richter scale earthquake shook apart some 80% of nearby buildings. I suspect the final tally of victims may rival that of the last great Chinese earthquake (Tanshan 1976, hundreds of thousands died then). I suppose the only ameliorating circumstance is that the earthquake certainly could have hit much more populous parts of China, even within this region.

In any case, I won't repeat the facts, figures, and human interest stories which are doubtlessly flooding the airwaves. All of my friends seem to be safe, although I haven't heard back yet from the manager of Mianyang Aston English School, located in the eponymous city which has seen more than 3,000 dead and 18,000 lost underneath debris.

As for myself, I still reside on the nineteenth floor of a condo tower of somewhat dubious building standards (the pipe under our kitchen sink broke a week or two ago, flooding our entire apartment to a depth of 3 cm or so). The Chinese co-manager of my school stopped by this morning to breathlessly tell me to spend as much time as possible outside of my apartment, to watch CCTV 9 (China's only English-language channel) for updates, to keep an eye on the people outside to see if they run into the streets, and inform me that school will be closed today and tomorrow due to the earthquake.

Fair enough, I say. Chongqing doesn't get snow days.

A predictable bit of an overreaction from the Astonian powers that be. They hardly wish to deal with the anguish and lawyers of teachers and children trapped within school premises--should aftershocks collapse already weakened structures. But I questioned the wisdom of Walter's other commandments. For one thing, if an earthquake hits and people flood into the streets visible to my sky perch, it's probably a little late for me to attempt the climb down nineteen flights of stairs. Let us not even contemplate the absurdity of waiting for concurrent news from CCTV's sorry excuse for an English-language news channel.

I do prefer to think that neither rain, nor snow, nor earthquakes, nor extraterrestrial demons could deter us teachers from our sacred duty to impart English--and stimulating thought exercises--upon our students. Chongqing was spared the wrath of god (or gods), and clearly this is a sign that Chongqing locals have better karma than do citizens of nearby Sichuan province. We should keep on doing what we do best, in the city of spice; we should continue our laborious march into the infernal heat of summer.

I wonder: Do the leaders of the CCP, like me, also recall an ancient Chinese tradition called the "mandate of heaven", portending the end of dynasties? Do they ask themselves if the Olympics are being held in vain, in the face of snowstorms, riots, protests, counter-protests, outbreaks of pestilence, typhoons, and earthquakes of epic scale... all within the last three months? I also wonder what is in store for the next three months.

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