Saturday, May 17, 2008

after the quake pt. 1

I was going down the stairs, on my way to class and heard and saw all the doors rattling in their frames. I thought it was some strange combination of wind and open windows, but the trees outside didn't confirm my hypothesis. When I got to the first floor, Bill was standing in his doorway with a strange look in his eyes.
"I think it's an earthquake."
"Well then let's stand in the doorway."
Stacy and her friend Becky came running down the stairs, panic in their faces.
"What's going on?"
"Stand here in the doorway with us."

30 seconds later, the girls suggested we go outside. Bill agreed. Outside, the sun shook as it shimmered off the windows. The earth continued to move. Students in various stages of siesta-induced undress and panic streamed from the buildings. Screaming. Hugging.

Once it stopped, lot of questions. What about our classes? What can we do now? Are the buildings safe? No one had any answers. I found half of my students huddled near the building next door where we were about to have class. No way were they going back in there, so we found a place to have class outside in a small amphitheater near the lake. We were surrounded by groups of scared students, teachers, and their families. Cellphones didn't work, but that didn't stop anyone from trying. What about their families back at home? Was everyone okay? Needless to say, any attempts at having class failed with the discussion always returning to the current situation.

Rumors spread through the crowd. "The epicenter was in Wenchuan." "They felt it in Beijing." "There'll be another one at four o'clock." Some people were too scared to do anything but sit and stare off into space. Others tried to make the most of the situation and played cards or amused themselves any way they could. (As I write this, another tremor causes everyone to flood out of their rooms again and loiter in the the courtyard the safety of which would be quite dubious were their logic correct.)

Just after 4, I tired of sitting there with my students so, comfortable in the knowledge our class was supposed to be over at 4:05, I went to go in and check out the internet. Two of my students had just gone to their dorms to get their laptops (presumably for entertainment, not communication) and they warned me that going back in was probably not an option, that the doormen were no longer letting anyone in due to safety concerns. After looking around the building and seeing no evidence whatsoever of damage, and knowing that no buildings on campus or nearby had collapsed or suffered significant damage, and that our apartment building is relatively new, I decided to go in anyway, only to have the doorman shout, "Don't go in!"
"It's okay, no problem."
"No problem? Well, okay," and in I went. Neither the stairwell nor my apartment showed any signs of damage other than a bottle which fell off my refrigerator and broke. Unfortunately, I could only access the school's intranet - there was no connection to the outside world, probably because a server had been turned off and no one had gone back in to turn it on. I grabbed a book and a cup of tea and went to join another foreign teacher on the grass across from our building.

At six we went to eat, where all the customers insisted on sitting outside. Afterward, I went home to pour some tea with another friend of mine, ignoring the completely unauthoritative warning to go in only to get things and exit immediately. After much delicious tea and conversation, my friend, a student, went to stay at her aunt's house on campus and I joined the other foreign teachers who were picnicking on the grass with wine and beer, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to walk and sit on the grass which is usually prohibited, a rule always quickly enforced by otherwise useless security guards.

Later we walked around campus a bit and found hundreds of students sleeping on the tennis and basketball courts,

though the largest group by far was in the stadium, sleeping on the soccer field, track, and concrete bleachers. They were all ill equipped, afraid or locked out of their dorms, most too scared to sleep.

I, of course, slept inside, and that's what I'm going to do right now. I'll continue the story for you tomorrow.

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