Sichuan Earthquake (part 2)

Friday, May 16, 2008

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This picture merges the images from two paintings I have in my living room. I am very fond of Chinese mountain paintings. Or perhaps they are river paintings. Yet before I went to China, I took them to be highly stylized renditions of the landscape. After all, I have divided much of my life between the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Andes of Colombia, and the Alps of Switzerland. I thought I knew mountains, and the rivers that run through them.

But as rescue teams continue to pull survivors out of rubble nearly a hundred-twenty hours after the first quake (and while aftershocks continue to rain down more rubble), and while teams rush to inspect the hundreds of at-risk dams in the quake area, I have an image in my mind of the photograph I didn’t manage to take. Our train from Kunming was racing toward Zhaotong amidst dramatically eroded limestone on our left, when suddenly on the right, a two-second break in the embankment revealed a straight drop of thousands of feet into a great valley, cut by a slender little river. The far side of the valley was nearly as steep, and dotted with giant boulders.

I think of the houses at the bottom of that valley, and a 7.9 earthquake.

China’s limestone provides some of our planet’s most dramatic scenery, cut away by water, shoved at precarious angles by earthquakes, and turned green by ample rains.
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At Jin Dao Gorge, in the rural hills of Chongqing Municipality, we hiked several miles between cliffs that were sometimes so close together a person could touch both sides at the same time. Add to that scene the river rushing beneath us. In the quake area, the rubble of collapsing hillsides has plugged similar gorges, creating lakes with the potential to rupture the impromptu dams, flooding hundreds of already suffering people in their paths.

In China, deaths by flooding and mudslides happen almost every year. Earthquakes that kill in the thousands happen several times each century. But the Chinese have responded to those conditions with a remarkable resilience. One of the things I noticed most during my time in China was the degree to which individual people had thrown themselves behind the national goals set forth by the leadership. Where in the United States we are often a nation of individuals, each pulling in our own direction, my impression of the Chinese was a billion and some people working as a team.

That’s a pretty impressive quality, when their stated goal is to develop the world’s strongest economy. Amidst the tragedy of all the fallen schools, in some of those very remote mountains, one of the things I will guess is that a high percentage of those children were studying English each day, because fluency in English (and several other of the world’s languages) is a national goal, as a stepping stone to building their economy. Every English-speaking traveler to China comes back to tell of being surrounded by young children who want to (or their parents want them to) practice their English. For example, that is how I met this cutie, at a butterfly park near Dali:
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My friends in China continue to tell me they are safe, and that their families are safe. I am still waiting to hear from Wang Mu, a resident of Chengdu with whom I’ve carried on occasional correspondence since meeting at a tourist stop. (He wanted to practice his English.)

Eunice, my former student, reported that at the time of the quake, her class at the Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), in Chongqing, was lining up for their senior picture. It is a language-study university. The quake disrupted them for about an hour, but then they took the picture.
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To me, this picture demonstrates both resilience and teamwork. I compare it to my own country, and wonder how many groups of students here are studying Chinese, or how often visitors from China are mobbed by school children wanting to practice their Mandarin. We are a nation with an earthquake beneath our feet, waiting to happen, and when it hits, I am afraid we won’t have the languages to address it, whether it be Chinese, Portuguese, or Punjabi. China is hurting right now, and I hurt with them. There are 5,000,000 personal tragedies (just the number of homeless). But the quake is only going to disrupt them for a short time. They are like a stream rushing down a narrow gorge, all the molecules headed in the same direction, cutting away at every impediment. Something I’ve learned about mountains: It is often the interplay of earthquakes and rivers that give them their character.

(I would like to credit the photographer for the SISU class picture, if someone can send me the name.)

Posted by Brian at 4:05 PM  


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