Tuesday, May 20, 2008

earthquake aftermath

It’s been eight days since the earthquake but I’m afraid that life here has still not returned to normal. Not to compare our situation with those in Sichuan province, of course – the destruction there is indescribable . . but I’m going to write here about how our lives have been affected.

Tal and Noam missed a week of school. The day after the earthquake their principal decided he would not re-open the school until a professional inspection could be completed – the building shook, tiles fell, walls were shaking. The principal’s decision seemed like the only responsible thing to do. However, it was very difficult to a) find a qualified building inspector who was willing to do the job at this difficult time; b) find the relevant building blueprints so that the inspector could effectively perform the task; c) get the building inspector to complete the job as he kept on getting called away on more pressing matters. After pressure from parents (not us), the school reconvened this morning for a half a day, and held classes in a park beside the school.

Their choice of location was complicated in that at 10:30 pm last night our provincial government issued a warning that a large aftershock was quite possible in Xi’an. All the parks were crowded with people who preferred to sleep outside rather than risk being caught in their buildings during the earthquake. During the day, people continued to hang out in the parks, preferring the open air to their buildings. So the kids had lots of company at “school” today.

Here at the university, our students are in similar straits. Last night, after the “announcement” was delivered to virtually every mobile phone in the city, the students poured out of their dorms and slept out in the central areas. I arrived at class this morning to a half-empty class, and the students who were there were pretty sleepy. Some chose to stay in their dorms last night, but most slept outside. Seems like the student union was trying to organize everyone at the large outdoor stadium, a valiant effort. The students were really impressed. While it seems that a few administrators came to some of the dorms last night to calm some students, in general the students were left to their own devices. This has been the students’ main complaint that I am aware of – lack of administrative support re their plight.

But effective communication is definitely lacking at our university, and from what I can gather from other colleagues at other universities, this is quite common. This morning, some of my colleagues were informed by their class monitors that classes had to be held outside, while others (like myself) were told nothing. I asked the students if they were comfortable in the building, the ones who were there said yes, so I held class inside. This afternoon, I showed up to class and was informed by a student that all classes in the university had been cancelled due to the pending earthquake. The students were meandering about on campus, there is no adequate shade, and it was about 93F/32C. So, many of them gathered under bridges or overhangs – I couldn’t understand why they felt that was safer than their buildings. I saw some students leaving campus with suitcases . . I guess they’d had enough.

I asked my students if they wanted to talk about what’s happening, tried to see what kind of support they needed, but at this point most of them express that they are “talked out.” They just want life to get back to normal, but with these constant “alerts”, this is difficult/impossible. Many of them think I/we are crazy for continuing to live our lives and sleep and eat indoors . . but, well, we feel differently. I don’t understand the concept of giving out these warning messages, yet not instituting any kind of reliable information system, or other services. Like providing shade for the students, or an information booth, or water, or even some entertainment.

And while all of this panic is occurring, sadness and loss permeates everything. So I try not to get too frustrated or judgmental . . everyone is overwhelmed. The coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath are everywhere – there’s blood donor stations, collection booths, fundraising drives . . all wonderful and important things, and the Chinese people we speak to are very unified, very proud of their government’s response to the trauma. There was a 3 minute “moment of silence” yesterday to begin a 3 day national mourning period. Cars stopped, horns blared, people bowed their heads. It wasn’t exactly Memorial Day in Israel, but that’s my closest comparison . . the sense of shared loss.

And we are constantly reminded that things could have been much worse – a friend was hit by a falling tile and has a massive welt on her arm, she saw someone get hit in the head by a falling “something”. And yet we still feel removed from the danger, but not from the panic/edginess of others, and the sense of loss.

We were just informed that the children will return to their full school day tomorrow – indoors, I guess the school got the “all clear.” Odd, as the rest of the province will still be on “earthquake alert” for at least another day, and I assume many other schools, who never had a building inspection, will choose to have their classes outdoors tomorrow. But now our kids will be inside. What a crazy time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Here are some clips from Noam's Taekwondo lessons - he goes twice a week with a couple of other foreign kids in our complex, but otherwise it's all in Chinese. He loves it and is doing very well. Will hopefully pick it up again when we get back to New Paltz . . but we prefer the price here in Xi'an. It's about $50 US for 3 months, including outfit, shoes, and twice weekly lessons.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I’m compiling a few emails we sent out about the earthquake and its aftermath to offer a sense of what it was like here in Xi’an – approximately 500 km away from the epicentre. Of course this kind of event makes everything feel fragile. We had a trip planned this weekend that would have taken us about 200 km closer to the earthquake epicentre, our friends were scheduled to be at ground zero the weekend after next, and Tal’s teacher and his family were there about a month ago. Besides being home to tens of thousands of people, the epicentre of the earthquake is near the World Wildlife Federation’s Panda Preserve – a very popular tourist destination in China and one that we were considering visiting on our way to Vietnam this July. Obviously, we’re going to skip that adventure. It will be a long time before travel to that part of the country will be back to normal.

I’m also adding in a couple of pictures of our campus the second night after the earthquake; many students continue to refuse to sleep in the dormitories, feeling the buildings are not safe in case of aftershocks. The first night there were apparently many more students outside, but I was focused more on my own family and did not wander around campus with my camera. Tonight, after almost 20 hours since the last aftershock, I was feeling more at ease. My family is sleeping soundly in our own beds.

Not quite sure of the students desire/need to continue to sleep outdoors. Some of them I know are legitimately scared, but when I walked around campus late tonight there were guitars out, laughter, singing, candles. Seemed like a giant excuse for a camp-out.

Re the situation in Xi’an – most of the damage is related to property, but no buildings collapsed or anything like that. Fallen tiles, cracks here and there, this kind of thing. However, 13 construction workers were killed on a construction site as the building they were working on swayed.

What our letters don’t mention is what didn’t occur. All this pandemonium and chaos in a city of 8,000,000 and I didn’t hear one siren. And I was in an extremely busy intersection when the earthquake occurred. Then, when I thought about it, I’ve NEVER heard a siren in Xi’an, and never seen a firetruck here either. So much for emergency response.

Dear all:  Most of you received a first email intended to inform
everyone that we were OK.
Some have asked for additional details, so here they are:
The ground began to swell and sway at around 2:30 in the afternoon. It
was a LONG and significant swell - no way to confuse it for anything but
an earthquake.
Seems we had an aftershock at 4:30 AM (we slept right
through it - our neighbors mentioned it - no sirens).
The epicenter is in Sichuan province (neighboring province to the south
of us) - right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
Some jokers are
claiming that this is an act by the Dalai Lama to break Tibet free -
wouldn't that be something.

The boys were at school, Lin was in mid-town at a post office and I was
in my office.
The boys were evacuated from their building and kept
They were not allowed to re-enter to gather up their books
etc. and were sent home as usual.
No school today as the building is
being assessed for safety.

Linda was in the post office and ran outside with everyone - thousands
of people crowding into the middle of the main street in Xi'an (for
those of you who have visited - Shao Zhai - about 1/2 way from our
campus to the old city wall).

I was at the computer in my office.

At the University: There were no sirens, no announcements on public
address systems and nobody asking that we evacuate the buildings.
tried standing in a door post, and then got under my desk (they gave me
three??) and then realized that I had no faith in the construction in
China and decided to get out.

After about 15 minutes I returned to my office to discover that the
internet was not disrupted (a shock).
I was steadily trying to reach
the boys' school and Linda and did get messages out though nothing back
from Linda - amazing how the phone system collapsed but Skype was up - I
could have spoken to any of you, but not to anyone in my family!

By the time I got home, the family was in, we had a normal dinner, Tal
and I played some ping pong but Noam's Taikwando class was canceled.

Everything was weirdly normal....

While we slept in our building, it seems that ALL the campus students
were required to sleep outdoors last night - the poor kids.
Faculty are
either more expendable or harder to boss around.... I will leave it to
you to decide which.

Our sense is that there is no clear organizing authority charged with
dealing with the situation. This is so clearly different from what one
would expect in the west that we find it perhaps the most disconcerting
aspect of this event.

Nonetheless, we have all that we need and our lives are back to normal
(except the boys' school being canceled).

The oddest thing is that while the quake was ongoing most everyone I
spoke to felt nauseous and lightheaded.
It was quite uncomfortable and
since the earthquake went on for an extended time, so too did the

Lots of coverage in the local media, with pictures of the Prime Minister
heading to the scene to "take over" relief efforts.

Based on my experiences in China, particularly my experience with
construction standards here and corruption levels, I think it is quite
amazing how well Xi'an did during the quake - though there are
rumors.... and my office building lost some bits and pieces.... and I
would expect the situation in Sichuan to be quite serious.
Rural area
construction is quite poor and old.
Rural in China isn't rural by any
Western standards - so lots of people are going to have been affected.

Still, we are thankfully well and safe. We had a family meeting about
what happened and how we would respond in future to similar events.
boys, it should be noted, maintained their cool throughout the quake,
calmly following instructions and not becoming hysterical.
Linda and I
did well too - a test under fire as it were.... no need for another one
thank you very much.

I expect my students tomorrow to be a mess - lets hope they are allowed
back into their dorms tonight.

Best to all,

Hi everyone: Some more details about the earthquake. We are all fine, but feeling a little uneasy (not the right word, can't think of the right word) as the reality of the disaster sinks in. Had classes today with my students, many of them tired and exhausted from a sleepless/sleep-limited night but all very willing to process yesterday's events. Some were actually in dire need of processing the events. Funny thing is that the students received only one message from their university re the earthquake at about 4:00 pm (90 minutes after it occurred) - that all buildings and dormitories were safe to enter. However, most students did not believe this information so everyone stayed out much longer, and a good portion of them slept in the outdoor stadium on campus. So, after countless discussions with my students on Tibet, and endless frustration with what I deem their blind acceptance of government/authority, turns out that my students do not blindly accept government authority. No matter what they were told yesterday, they all preferred a sleepless night in the outdoors rather than re-entering the campus buildings.


Hi there - Boys are off school again tomorrow though I anticipate Thursday school will be open again. Was some damage to their building and it has been challenging to find a building inspector free and willing to give it a lookover. Most schools and other buildings skip the inspection before re-opening (on campus they sent a security guard into the buildings about 90 minutes after the earthquake, and he said that everything was fine!!!). We have returned to our regular routines, although many around us are still wary of entering buildings and the parks are littered with people sleeping outdoors. Some of my students insist that they will sleep outside for a week at least. Their response is a little puzzling - they are tuned into the news, but there is a lot of faith placed on rumours. (Speaking nof rumour-mongering, the dean of international students told several foreign students to expect an aftershock in Xi’an today at 2:48 pm. Where he got this ludicrous information I’ll never know, but the ground was solid all day). My students seem to distrust whatever minimal information has been given to them by the university. But, in defense of the students, the university leaders have communicated almost nothing to them and have been largely absent. Some of my students told me that during the earthquake their teachers simply ran out of the room before anyone else . . they were left to manage their own evacuation. I understand panic and rash decisions, so I'm not trying to judge, but my students really feel abandoned and like they can't trust anyone. So I suppose they feel it's best to just stay outside. But, we've had almost 24 hours with no further aftershocks, so I imagine that they will soon return to their dorms. Probably a good rain will help them all go back inside (today the weather was gorgeous . . no wonder they all stayed outside).

Love, Linda