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.