The little girl, all of ten years old, fidgets in her bed like all little girls her age made to sit still for too long. She smiles shyly as her mother proudly tells her story — of how she was trapped in a collapsed building, unable to move, for days until the army finally was able to dig her out. As they are speaking Chinese I understand nothing, but stand politely and try give a look of concern, and hope. The girl smiles at me and laughs like all little girls should laugh. It is a good ten minutes we are standing there before I notice a bandage on her left leg, just below the knee. Below the bandage is nothing, for her leg was amputated but days before.
On May 12, 2008 an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan Province in western China. It was felt as far away as Beijing and Tokyo. It killed over 69,000 people, injured as many as 370,000 and left approximately 5 million homeless. The effects were devastating and it will be lifetimes before China recovers. Recently I was able to visit some of the affected areas and meet with some of the people there. I will never be the same.
I traveled with my newfound friend, and instigator of the trip, Vivian. She is native Chinese and had the entire trip planned. There were three goals of the trip: to meet people affected by the earthquake and help them in any way we could, to act as reporters and deliver first hand accounts to various groups in the US who would like to help, and to meet with Chinese government officials about building an orphanage.
We arrived in Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan Province, and our base of operations on Monday afternoon. After dropping off our bags we met with one of Vivian's friends and headed straight towards the local hospital where many survivors were receiving treatment.
Zhi is probably in her early 50s, about medium height and plump from happier times. Her knees and hands are scarred and scabbed over. She is sleeping when we first come in but her husband quickly wakes her up and immediately she smiles at us, not knowing who we are but seeing we come as friends. She sits up tall, fusses with her hair and tries to look her best while her husband tells her story.
Like so many others her home was destroyed by the earthquake. She got out relatively unscathed, just a bump on her head and the fear that gripped them all. The army was quick to mobilize and sent out scores of convoys to pick up the survivors and take them to hospital. As she walked towards one such convoy, her head swam with dizziness from her wound and she fell, knocking herself unconscious. By the time she awoke, the convoy was long gone. So she walked.
For over twenty days and nights she walked – and crawled – her way to the city and help. She ate what she could find, a few wild berries, and some animals left dead in the grass. For nearly three weeks she teetered on the edge of death hoping for someone, anyone, to find her. No one did. With unfailing persistence she helped herself – eventually crawling her way to the city where there was a hospital and doctors. She can no longer walk as her legs are almost assuredly permanently damaged, and she will remain in hospital for quite some time. But she is alive, and thankful for that.
We met her, and so many others, at the hospital in Chengdu where many of survivors with urgent needs were taken along with hundreds in need of amputation. We talked with several, and observed many more trying to get a feel for what the people had experienced. I was struck by the strength of character seen in almost all of the patients. These people have come to know what suffering really means. They have lost family and friends and nearly their lives and yet are still grateful for what they do have. Everywhere we went people were smiling and laughing, happy to tell their stories. Happy to have survived.
We chatted with them, took pictures with them, and obtained their addresses and phone numbers. Later we brought them the developed pictures – now the only pictures they have of themselves since all others were lost in the quake. We chatted some more, or I should say the people and Vivian chatted as all I could do was smile and (hopefully) look encouraging.
A week later, when we returned home I gave the contact information to some of my Chinese friends. They have all promised to call those whom we visited and help them in any way they can. The government has done a good job of ensuring the people have shelter and food, but with so many affected it is impossible for them to hear every need. Though we may not be able to help with all of their problems, we hope we can at least be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry upon.
We had hoped to visit some of the worst hit areas but unfortunately this proved impossible. The government would not allow me to go anywhere near the epicenter and surrounding places. It seems they found out many of the Americans who had come to help were also secretly preaching religion (cults they called them) and as such foreigners were now banned. Vivian did get to go farther and reported back that alongside the rubble were rows and rows of temporary housing (mostly tents stuffed deep with people) and plenty of food.
Later in the week we traveled to Leshan to meet with the local government. Vivian is well connected and works as a volunteer for the Agape organization, which wants to build an orphanage in the area. Surprising, as Agape is openly a Christian organization, the government has agreed to give them some land upon which to build this orphanage. It is easily assumed that with so many orphans in the area after the earthquake and with not a single orphanage in the city, the government has decided to overlook this religious affiliation.
We first had a meeting with the local officials and it was my first chance to see the Chinese people in a more formal setting. We were served steaming hot tea in little glasses while a few young men waited in the wings ready to serve us more tea, or ashtrays as there was need.
The big boss (who I learned later was basically the governor of the entire area and a very big deal) introduced his coworkers who all stood up and bowed to us. Then Vivian made a show of thankfulness and introduced me and a young man from Agape. I wasn't really sure when she introduced me, so whenever everyone looked my way I sort of half way stood up and nodded.
An hour of formal and stilted conversation ensued. Once again I understood approximately nothing, but sat quietly with my now permanent smile. Eventually the meeting was concluded with another round of appreciation and we were escorted to lunch. I quickly realized that the meeting had nothing on lunch in terms of formality. It was held in a private dining room of a four star hotel. We were served all sorts of delicacies from the region (including, I am told, frog legs, squid tentacles, and whale fin soup).
On formal dining occasions it is apparently appropriate to spend a lot of time making toasts, and that's just what everyone did. The boss stood up first, making a big show and we all clinked our champagne glasses. A few moments later someone rose and toasted a single individual in my group. Then one from my group made a toast to someone else. And so on. Throughout the entire meal people were constantly getting up and down to toast someone else, including me.
Every meal we had with them was like that. Eat a little, toast a lot. I finally decided that you made a toast whenever you wanted a sip of your wine. We always had water as well and everyone drank heartily from those glasses, but when it was time to sip (or gulp) from something stronger it became toast time.
Throughout the meal everyone kept staring at me – to see what the silly foreigner thought of the outlandish Chinese food. For my part I smiled and ate graciously even if I didn't always know what I was eating. I clinked my glass whenever it was needed and drank and hoped it would all end soon.
Besides the champagne and the wine we were also served some very strong vodka. For some reason it was assumed that I wasn't much of a drinker (and in truth I am not) so all eyes were upon me when I took my sip of the hot stuff. I made a show of it with a big “whoa daddy” and watery eyes after my sip. After being made fun of, the rest of the meal I made sure to prove my manhood in the end by toasting one of the bigger men and swigging my shot down in one gulp.
Formal meals and meetings aside, we visited several potential sites and the government seemed very excited to be giving us some land in which to build the orphanage. Each site had its pros and cons and we all discussed their merits. Afterward we went to a swanky tea house and drank lots of Chinese tea — for three long, excruciating hours. At this point I had sat through the formal meeting, through a two hour lunch where I was the amusement, trucking about town looking at properties, all while feeling the outsider and understanding very, very little. I was ready to go home. Yet there we sat in the heat, drinking the tea — and if you have never had Chinese tea it is a very different thing than Southern style sweet tea. They throw the rather bitter tea leaves right into the glass then fill it up with steaming hot water. I spent my time sipping slowly, trying to look like I actually enjoyed the taste and looking around to see how you were supposed to drink without gulping down a mouthful of leaves.
The day finally ended and proved to be very productive as we were on our way to securing the property for the orphans. The next two days were filled with excursions to local tourist sites (including the world's largest Buddha). We were accompanied by some of the local officials and I inwardly smiled at being a capitalist American being wined and dined by hard-core Chinese communists. The times, as the poet says, are a-changing.
Before we left we visited an already existing orphanage just outside Chengdu. It is small (housing at most about 30 orphans) and not exactly swank, but it had a lot of heart. We brought the kids some books and toys and I got to play with them a long time while Vivian talked to the workers about conditions. Most of the children have one disability or another. Many are blind or deaf and most have mental health issues. Yet they were all very kind and sweet. I've left pieces of my heart in many places in China, and that little orphanage got a big chunk.
There are thousands of stories about the earthquake and many more that I was able to see and could tell. I have spent almost a year to the day in China and while it has all fascinated and captivated me nothing has meant more to me than those few days in Sichuan. It truly captured the beauty and heart of the Chinese people. To see so many who had suffered so much and yet still retained their dignity and their spirit – to see that when times are at their worst, the people are at their best is something I will always treasure. There simply isn't enough time or pages on the Internet to tell all of their stories, so I will leave you with this one, my favorite.
I do not know her name, so we will simply call her Ping. She is about eight years old and like so many children she was in school when the earthquake hit. As the first tremors shook, Ping's teacher told all of the children to leave the building and to walk across a small field so they would be safe in case of collapse.
All of the children minded except for little Ping. Her teacher had always told her to tuck her chair up under her desk before she left the classroom, and she had always minded her teacher. She minded again on this day, though she was nearly shaken to the ground.
The teacher hurried her along but by the time they had left the building the rest of the children were already across the field. As Ping and her teacher crossed over to meet with the rest of the class the ground shook mightily and brought a landslide down from the nearby mountains. The world came tumbling and with it the rocks, trees, and whatever else was in its path. As Ping and her teacher watched, the earth swallowed all of her classmates, killing every one. The teacher, seeing the landslide heading their way, pulled her arms around Ping sheltering her from the oncoming onslaught. The ground quickly buried them several feet deep, killing the teacher, but thanks to her quick thinking little Ping was saved.
Her teacher's hands were pressed so firmly into her cheeks that nearly a month later they were still bruised. Her shoes dug deep into Ping's calves causing immense pain. There was no room to move, and precious little air to breath.
Like this she lay – buried in her earthen tomb, beneath the rocks, the dirt and the corpse of her teacher/savior. For two days she lay there with no food nor water, not knowing if she would ever see the light again.
In time rescue workers did come and began to search for survivors and find the dead. Little Ping heard the workers come and she sang them a song.
Later, when asked why she had sung she replied that she knew they must be tired and weary from working so hard and so she sang them a song to lift their spirits.
This little girl who had suffered more than I can begin to imagine used what precious little breath she had to sing, because others might be a little tired.
Such is the spirit of the Chinese people.
Such are the people who need your help.
If you would like to help in our effort to build the orphanage or with our campaign to help those I visited on this trip please send me an e-mail.