Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Own Earthquake Memories

When I first heard about the earthquake Monday morning from the radio, I immediately asked myself, “Is this the year of the dragon?” I can never forget the year of the dragon in 1976. So many things happened that year in China, and we all thought it was because the dragon shook the earth!

On a hot July night in 1976, we’d fallen into deep sleep when suddenly I awoke to the noise of rattling windows. I felt the apartment building shaking, too. I immediately thought it was an earthquake. By then, my whole family was up and we quickly ran outside. Luckily, none of buildings in our Beijing neighborhood collapsed. We were all safe but couldn’t go back inside. Many of our neighbors didn’t have much clothing on, but we were too scared to go back because of the aftershocks. We stayed outside all night.

The next morning we learned that the earthquake’s epicenter was in Tangshan, not far from Beijing. Many people were buried under collapsed buildings and all of Tangshan was almost gone! At that time, we didn’t have all these rescue teams and donations as we’ve seen this week. We felt so helpless. People in Beijing didn’t go to work that week. Since it was summer break, we didn’t go to school, either. We were told we shouldn’t sleep in the buildings. So we all moved out and set up temporary tents to sleep outside, just like you see in the pictures from Sichuan now. It also rained heavily the next night and following days, just like what happened in Sichuan!

After a few nights of sleeping in the tents with heavy rain, I got a very bad mosquito bite (we used to think it was from a poison mosquito) and my whole arm became swollen. I went to the hospital and received emergency treatment from the doctors. A few weeks passed, and we still slept outside under those tents. Having worried so much about an earthquake happening again, every family started building their own earthquake-resistant houses, of course, with support from local government. These one-room houses were simple: brick walls, a rubber roof and one door. We all built such houses and were prepared to live there if aftershocks came again. After that, many earthquake-resistant houses could be seen throughout Beijing, but in the 1980s all of them were ordered to be removed.

Now the 7.9 earthquake happened in Sichuan, bringing to mind the official announcement of 7.6 in Tangshan in 1976 (actually it was 8.3). I watch as scenes unfold similar to those I experienced in 1976, like setting up temporary tents, heavy rain, people afraid to go back in the buildings … but I also see many unfamiliar scenes that didn’t exist in 1976. Now you can learn about everything happening in the region from Chinese TV, newspapers and the Internet. People are donating money and volunteering to travel to the region to help. When I called my girlfriend in Beijing, she said she was going to donate blood. Yesterday’s New York Times also commented on how the Chinese government reacted so differently than other natural disasters.

Here’s a heartbreaking article in today’s New York Times. I have trouble even reading these stories and looking at images of those children. Messages from my friend describing scenes in Wenchun are almost unbearable. But I know there are lessons to be learned. My first reaction is to wonder why the buildings are so vulnerable even though the government issued building codes to prevent earthquake damage? Were these codes applied only in the Beijing area because what happened there in 1976? Why there was no forecast about the earthquake even though we learned from Tangshan how important it is? Maybe we’ve all forgotten what happened three decades ago or thought it would never happen to us again. I still remember hearing that lots of children became orphans and many parents lots their children in Tangshan. I thought that the area could never recover. But here is what you see now.

In response to this tragedy, I’m donating a portion of all ChinaSprout’s sales from now through May 31st to China Red Cross. Your purchases will help people in Sichuan recover from this disaster. If you’d like to make donations to be used for earthquake disaster relief, here is a list of organizations that will accept donations:

Red Cross Society of China
CITIC Bank Beijing, China
Account # 7112111482600000209
Hotline: (8610) 65139999
Online donations: Red Cross Society of China website:

Chinese Red Cross Foundation
Account Name: Chinese Red Cross Foundation
Beneficiary Bank: Bank of China
Account: 800100086608091014
Phone: 8610-65124154 8610-65129947 8610-65599176

Give to Asia

For updates about the earthquake, you can visit these websites:
XinHua News Agency
The New York Times



Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your memories and helping us grapple with this terrible disaster. For some, like my family, who have adopted from China, it is haunting to worry about our unknown, but very important, relatives who gave us our beloved daughter. Both China Sprout's offer of donating 5% and your list of news sources and charity links is very helpful for everyone. --an adoptive mom in Oregon

Greatful in upstate NY said...

Sichuan Province is very special place to us. Just over a year ago we traveled to China to bring home our beautiful daughter. We stayed in Chengdu for 5 wonderful days. My 5 year old son was very upset when he learned of the tragedy in China. He wanted to know how we could help and if the Panda's were safe. So thank you for sharing the links to were we can help, and your memories.