Monday, May 12, 2008

Earthquake kills thousands in Central China... to the world, whatever you are: please stop

Sometimes -- it's rare this happens, and when it does it's usually self-incurred, me spending too much time in a room by myself -- I get a sinking feeling the world's gone mad and I'm the last witness. I opened a browser just now and look what popped up:

In case you're keeping score at home, that's:

Storms kill 22 over Mother's Day weekend ... gas prices hit 5th straight record ... bloated bodies rot along Myanmar river ... 3 men die in 'detergent suicide' pact ... wildfires rage, stamp prices increase, death and love, another suicide and, oh yes, a horrific earthquake. The entire gamut of human tragedy, menial to profound, edited to fit into one website sidebar.

Then I refreshed my browser and this came up:


Add that to the spiraling death toll in Myanmar -- if you've followed the story at all, you have to understand how surreal it seems, when at first our reaction was, "Oh, cute, a cyclone," and progressed to, "What, 350 dead?" to "What, 4,000 dead?" to "What, 15,000 dead?" to "What, more?" Radio Netherlands Worldwide dropped this bombshell recently: 80,000 are feared dead from a single district. I'm usually a stickler for grammar, but I think it'd be okay if I ignored conventions for a bit: !!!!!!! !!!! !!!!!! -- and the tornadoes that hit the Midwestern United States and the nearly 300,000 that died in Asia from the tsunami in late 2004 and Katrina in 2005 and you just have to wonder...

What is it Joseph Stalin said, One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic? What a brilliant quote, seething with the cold, malicious cackle of irony. There is nothing statistical about this:

My uncle (Jiujiu) called me while I was sitting down to dinner today and asked if I felt any tremors. I told him I did not. He said, rather matter-of-factly, that an earthquake had hit Sichuan, and that the aftershocks should be rolling around sometime soon, and for me not to be worried. I told him OK.

I had no idea 3,000 are dead.

I know this is natural, just nature's way of shaking its coat of fur of bits and pieces that have bogged down its circadian rhythms. When we overpopulate, there will be repercussions: taketh what he giveth, that sort of deal. Still. There can be something powerful yet about statistics, something evocative of absence, which cannot be known except through juxtaposition with presence. Something warm has been blasted into oblivion and here I am, by myself in a room quiet as a summer breeze, wondering how we get it back, if such is possible or desirable.

Let's pause a moment. Links from this past week follow.

  • More on the Sichuan earthquake, from Times Online.

  • Elaborating on two stories from CNN's sidebar, above: Time reports that the D.C. Madam preferred suicide to prison, and the Economist, a couple weeks ago, wrote about Japan's new suicide craze, toilet bowl cleaner with bath salts (or "detergent and other chemicals," as CNN puts it). "Death be not proud" was the article's title. Amateur scholars who modernize the poem "Death be not proud" inject it with exclamation marks, as if the narrator were some young, lovestricken soul raging against this dark, nebulous force for which our only defense is recalcitrance; in reality, John Donne's voice was one of rueful acceptance, of receiving death not as an adversary but a friend, imagining him as some gatekeeper allowing him to pass into an otherworld where death, poor death, is never heard from again. In other words, the Economist did Donne no credit, but I give them props for shedding light on an important issue.

    Of prostitution I have only this to say: what's so wrong with it? I've read both sides of the argument -- more swayed by one side than another -- but I'm interested to hear what you have to say.

  • Speaking of suicide and young lovers... via Shanghaiist: "Lovers commit suicide at Xujiahui's Grand Gateway." Don't click on the hyperlinked word "abuzz."

  • More on Hu Jintao's visit to Japan: does anyone else find it pleasantly odd that a world leader can be so well-balanced? We know President Bush can throw a baseball (unless he's being booed by 2/3rds of the stadium in his adopted town of D.C. on Opening Day), but Hu Jintao can probably do that while hitting high Cs in a falsetto. In Japan he wrote calligraphy, taught Li Bai and, in case you missed it, slammed home a series of points in ping pong (my shushu, somewhat of an expert ping pong player himself, commented that it takes skill to successfully spike four times consecutively, which President Hu apparently did). According to Japan Today, "[Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo] Fukuda later in the day told reporters that he 'chickened out in the face of good players.'"

  • We talked about Chinese nationalism last week, so this is a good follow-up, from the San Jose Mercury News: "The worrisome rise of pro-China youth." [HT: Shanghaiist]

  • "Bear-baiting," via The Opposite End of China (newly added to blogroll). Exerpt from The Age (Australian newspaper), quoted within: "Today, the West is involved in a game of bear-baiting with China. China has been awarded the right to host the Olympic Games, about which it has worked itself into feverish excitement and so, correspondingly, the West is in the process of humiliating China, with the Tibet issue being the West's most effective stick. It is daring China to respond, knowing that China won't because it does not want to risk a boycott of the Games. China is like a tethered bear."

  • An English Teacher in China, just discovered today, is quite a nice resource for those interested in teaching English in China (there's a light bulb warming up in my head). In today's post, the author wrote, "Her friend, the married one, thought that while Americans may date a lot before and are more 'open' than Chinese before they get married, but after they get married they become quite conservative maybe more so than Chinese are." I concur. I've heard the same thing -- Jiuma and her friend, Zhang Ting, said this a couple weeks ago -- that Chinese husbands are much less loyal to their wives than Western husbands. It makes sense, I suppose. Then again, it's my theory that unmarried Chinese women are a lot less conservative than people suspect. This theory will have to be tested.

  • The Wall Street Journal throws its cap into Olympics coverage.

  • Via China View: "Beijing, with 5,174 public toilets, has outpaced New York, London and Tokyo and become the world's No. 1 metropolis as far as public toilets are concerned." I wonder if they're counting squat toilets, because those most definitely should not count.

  • We should end on a light note. From BBC News: Great tits cope well with warming.
POSTSCRIPT: Please notice the tags on this post. This blog better get red-flagged after this.

UPDATE, 12:07 a.m.: 8,500 dead and counting. Jiujiu's in that part of the world right now -- not that far southeast, I don't think, and he did call during dinnertime, so I think he should be just fine. He was supposed to take an overnight train back to Beijing three and a half hours ago, but with aftershocks registering 5.0 on the Richter Scale around the countryside -- felt even in Pakistan -- I don't think he's going anywhere. Tried calling but his cell phone's off -- CNN's reporting communication lines have been cut off everywhere. Will update tomorrow.

No comments: