Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More on the earthquake, and an anecdote about my aunt

It just doesn't stop. Here're the last three paragraphs of a CNN story about a middle school in Juyuan, where nearly 900 kids are trapped:

While boasting only basic facilities -- a concrete courtyard, netless basketball hoops and soccer net made of steel pipe -- Juyuan was a magnet school attracting the region's top students, many of them from isolated communities who boarded in an adjacent dormitory.

Unless more survivors are found, the quake will have wiped out the school's entire graduating class and about half its student population.

"They were all our friends, and we'll miss them a lot," said a Juyuan seventh-grader who gave her name as Xiao Mei and wore the school's red, white and blue track suit uniform. "I'm very sad."

There are no words for this. I'm trying to come up with some, but I don't think they're necessary. Don't think for a second this is over, either. The death toll will increase, and probably drastically over the coming days.

The Black and White Cat has some haunting pictures up on its site, and right now I'd recommend to anyone interested in following this story to make daily visits to Shanghaiist and Danwei. My aunt emailed me not too long ago and said she was thinking about contributing a few Yuan to the relief effort. A few Yuan, of course, is nothing, but... it's something. The Shanghaiist and Danwei both have donation info, as does Time's China Blog. And NPR's got a Chengdu blog that's worth checking out.

SPEAKING OF MY AUNT, I got some information last night from Jiujiu about her arrest in 1976 (I alluded to this in an entry yesterday). It was the summer after Zhou Enlai's death, and the people wanted to mourn his passing. But Mao Zedong's fourth (and final) wife, Jiang Qing, wouldn't let them, and chaos ensued. My aunt, 16 years old at the time, was riding on a bus with a friend* when she noticed a building on fire. She and her friend hopped off and ran inside, wrapping phones and other electronics in blankets and throwing them onto the lawn below. Don't ask me why she was trying to save phones -- I asked Jiujiu this and he replied, "Well, she was just 16."

*This was a close friend, also 16, and male, and I surmised this was the friend with whom she had, a few years later -- I don't think I'm making this up -- a torrid affair which resulted in unspeakable heartbreak from which she hasn't fully recovered. Again, I don't think I'm overstating things, but the full story I don't yet have.

As it so happens, the building was a barracks -- it's gone now, but it was located about half a kilometer from where the history museum now stands -- and the fire had been started from a carbon monoxide bomb of some sort. When my aunt and her friend emerged from the burning building, they were set upon by a group of soldiers, residents of the barracks, who had been watching them. My aunt's hands were bound and eyes blindfolded, and that's what happens when one gets arrested in China.

There was no trial, nothing. My laoye's status as a veteran and party loyalist could not save my aunt -- this was, you will remember, during the Cultural Revolution. My uncle, who was in the same grade in school as my aunt (11th) despite being two years older, would soon be sent to a factory for his "reeducation," and my mom, two years older than Jiujiu and out of high school, had already been booted to the countryside. My aunt began her prison sentence on April 5 and got out on July 27.

On the day she was released, my mom picked her up and the two of them talked nonstop until two in the morning. (There was solitary confinement, that's all I know.) Shortly after falling asleep, the ground began to tremble. The walls swayed. Books fell and furniture shifted. This was the Tangshan earthquake, eventually known as the Great Tangshan earthquake, a 7.8-magnitude expression of rage and brute force that would become one of the deadliest disasters of the 20th century, claiming more than 240,000 lives. Until a few days ago, Tangshan was just another place. Now, every report that says the Sichuan earthquake was the "worst in more than 30 years" is making a direct reference to Tangshan, and we're left to wonder about history's cycles and whether the good doesn't repeat alongside the bad.

I'm not sure how to end this story except to say that Tangshan is close to Beijing -- much, much closer than Sichuan -- and that that night in 1976 sort of occupies a significant though unspoken place in my family history, as it does in many Chinese families' histories. For slightly different reasons, obviously. I wonder how best to bring this up to my aunt in the coming days to ensure a reply.

UPDATE: By far the most comprehensive entry about giving aid for disaster relief, via CN Reviews.

No comments: