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Shaken but solid: A gay man and the Chinese earthquake
2008-07-01

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by TOM EMEI YINSHI

Tens of thousands of people lost their lives May 12 when an earthquake registering approximately 7.9 on the Richter scale hit China's Sichuan province. In an extended letter, a man who happens to be gay detailed what it was like to live.

Dear friends across China, the USA, and the world,

I look at my watch. It is 2:28 p.m., Mon., May 12. I am planning to go to the Southwestern University teachers' union gym to work out when it opens at 3 p.m. In the last several months—due, apparently, to a combination of winter cabin fever, free-floating depression and lack of discipline as far as getting regular sleep, diet, and exercise—I have lost an alarming 11 kilograms ( about 20 pounds ) , going from 61 kg ( 134 pounds ) to 50 kg ( 110 pounds ) . One of my friends at the university remarked that I am looking gaunt. I am doing weight training to try to gain back some bulk.

I am transcribing student grades onto an Excel spreadsheet on the computer—when the desk starts vibrating. There are new apartment buildings under construction on a hill close by, and I presume the vibrations are caused by another truck laden with bricks or gravel rumbling by. The Chinese overload their trucks ( and buses and motor scooters ) with goods or materials, which then fall off in a pile onto the road if the driver makes a sharp turn or goes up a hill. I look out the window next to the desk ( from which, incidentally, I have a nice view of Mount Emei ) . There is no truck. The shaking quickly becomes stronger, a few objects falling off the shelves of my bookcase, and I realize, 'It's an earthquake!' I tell myself to stay calm but move quickly. I am a naturist, weather permitting, and as this is a warm day, I am working at the desk naked. I grab my jeans, inserting one leg and then the other—no mean feat while the room is shaking—and gingerly pick my way down the five flights of stairs to the street.

It seems like the quake lasts a long time. For such an event, it does. I time it at roughly four minutes. ( Three minutes was the later acknowledged figure. ) When the shaking stops, I inspect the building and stairs for visible damage and, seeing none, go back inside. 'Well, that was an exciting break in the day's routine,' I muse. I pick up the phone to dial a fellow teacher to banter about it. The phone is dead. The electricity has gone off, too. It is now that I surmise the quake has been more serious than I thought.

I add a T-shirt and sandals to my meager dress, and put three essentials into my shoulder bag: my passport; the stash of cash I keep on hand for emergencies; and the USB portable disk on which my most-used computer files and records are backed up. With the telephones, both land lines and mobile, down, I set out onto the campus to check on friends and make sure they are safe. I cross in front of the library, from which signs and wall plaster have fallen, toward his apartment to look for my friend Wangdaifu, a third-year civil engineering major who lives in a building near mine. Wangdaifu's English name, by transliteration, is 'Wonderful.' ( While he did not intend the name to express, shall we say, a robust self-image, I will say that he is, in spirit, truly 'wonderful.' ) Wonderful is just then coming to look for me. Roof tiles ( Chinese, wa, pronounced with a dropping-then-rising tone ) —many Chinese buildings are surmounted by traditional-style ceramic tiles, often with decorative dragons—have fallen off his building, but it is otherwise intact. Together, Wonderful and I tour the campus in search of friends, and spend the remainder of the day in one another's encouraging companionship.

People are standing about in uncertainty or alarm. As Wonderful and I pass the men's dorms, many of the students, likewise caught on a warm day, and especially since the quake came during a time when many take an afternoon nap, were sans shirts and shoes, as I had initially been. The university has suffered comparatively light damage. In a classroom heavily used by the foreign-languages department, where my Chinese colleague Nick was teaching when the quake came, the suspended tile ceiling—what Americans call a 'drop ceiling'—had, in fact, dropped. This had particularly dramatized the event to him and the students as they made their escape. One of the men's dormitories has cracked walls. Its residents have been relocated to the university guesthouse pending repairs.

There are no injuries among students or staff. A story later circulated, likely apocryphal, of a man in Emei city who, when the shaking started, stuck his head out the window to see what was going on, was hit on the head by a falling tile and killed. There was a tale that a male student jumped out his fifth-floor dorm room window, and was rushed to the hospital with possible spinal injury. Then the story morphed into it being a girl who leapt from a third-floor dorm window. Finally, it turned out there had been no jumper at all.

Gradually, a few mobile phone service providers come back online, although it would be two days before utility services were generally re-established. As students are able to contact their parents, we learn that the quake has been felt in Chengdu, the provincial capital, two hours away by bus ( and closer to the epicenter ) , in Chongqing ( Wonderful's home ) , in Beijing, and even in Wuhan, where I served at Hubei University in 2006. There, students felt the tremors and hurried out of their afternoon classes. Classes stopped for a few hours, but the normal schedule resumed that evening. My former postgraduate writing course student and now fine friend, Jim, was working in the graduate study room on the eleventh floor of the ( 12-story ) library when the shaking occurred. Students recognized it was an earthquake, and had to make their way down long flights of stairs, taking what for them seemed an unending amount of time to reach the ground. Just as I spent the day with Wonderful, Jim ran into a friend by the library, and spent the day in her company, encouraging each other. The quake was felt as far away as Bangkok, Hanoi, and Taiwan.

Wonderful is concerned about locating his girlfriend, who seems nowhere to be found. It turned out she was returning to Emei from a weekend visit to Chengdu. Her bus was delayed because of the quake. She showed up in the evening, for a happy reunion.

Wanting to distract Wonderful from his understandable but increasingly anxiety about his girlfriend ( I was sure she would turn up, since everyone around us seemed unharmed ) , I ask him to come along as I go to look in on my friend Andy and his family and staff at Teddy Bear Hotel, in Emei Mountain's tourist district across from the main gate of the university. They are safe, and the hotel, full of tourists stranded by the confusion, has no damage. Andy suggests I stay at his place for the night, an easier escape than from my own top-floor apartment if there are major aftershocks.

But for the time being, I go back to the campus to see how the students are faring. Hundreds have gathered in the main sports arena, a level area of ground comparatively safe. Several teachers from my department have come and shepherded our majors together, arranging food from a local bakery and bottled water, and helping them set up an outdoors camp for the night. I have sometimes felt that a lot of teachers at the university view their positions as mere jobs, without commitment to the students. My estimation of the teachers present this day rises immensely as I witness their care for the students.

Rumors about subsequent shakes are flying. 'They said there will be an earthquake at 6:00 p.m.' ( The 'they' is not specified. ) When 6:00 p.m. arrives without incident, the prediction is changed to 7:00 p.m. Then it's 'They say it will come at 8:00.' Then 9:00 o'clock. Then it will come at 10:00. On and on. I patiently explain that the status of geological science does not allow such pinpoint predictions. Otherwise 'they' would have warned us of the big one that did happen, right? After more and more such rumors, exasperated, I spout out, 'This is an engineering college, am I the only person with sufficient comprehension of basic science and logic to get it?' In fairness, it was a scary experience. I speak with an older woman who lives near the campus, who says she can remember nothing quite like this in her lifetime. I was reminded of 9/11 in the United States six and a half years before, when the Internet was full of absolutely sure dire predictions of attacks on this or that city or shopping mall. Fear breeds credulity. The situation is not helped by several real aftershocks. A fairly sizeable one comes as I am sitting among the students on the sports field.

The main quake, of magnitude 7.9 on the Richter scale, it is now calculated, has left an estimated 80,000 dead, as well as many times that number of lives disrupted. Here in Sichuan Province, we are at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, where the South Asia tectonic plate pushes northward against Central Asia, resulting in the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas. The region has recently seen unrest among ethnic Tibetans, with the result that non-Chinese are forbidden from entering the plateau, and communication from there being spotty. That impeded information flow from the quake zone, at first. But the Chinese government, needing to paint an image of openness after the Tibetan crackdown, and with hopes for visitors to still come to the summer Olympics in Beijing, became comparatively forthcoming with information. The reporting, however, contained a characteristic propagandistic spin. A story circulated that people around the world, including in the United States, watching in wondering admiration at the efficiency of the government's and army's rescue and clean-up efforts, have been inspired to embrace Communism as the demonstrated superior form of government. ( Lower-level bureaucratic heads may roll as scapegoats for the construction of unsafe concrete-slab schools and housing in known earthquake zones. The Associated Press and Yahoo news on the June 3 report from Dujiangyan that police dragged off grieving parents asking why the schools had been built so flimsily. Of course, journalists too were taken away. An official, using the usual Communist slogan to justify repression, said, 'They are disturbing the harmony of our society.' Somehow the government censors failed to find and block this report. ) When a student with eyes glowing at this glorious news asks me about Americans' turn to Communism, it is hard for me not to laugh sardonically that he, like so many, uncritically swallow any nonsense the government-controlled media tells them. If I were a Chinese person affected by the quake, I would regard this news spin as a tasteless exploitation of my pain and loss.

I stay the night on a couch in Andy's hostel, a few meters from the main doors, but do not really anticipate a need to evacuate. Around 11 p.m. it starts raining, driving the students who had set up their mats and blankets on the sports field to take refuge in the first-floor levels of the teaching buildings and auditoriums around campus. The temperature goes down. The following morning I return to campus, and, with classes cancelled, attempt to put in an otherwise normal day's work. Classes are held off and on through the remainder of the week, as aftershocks and rumors come and go. I ask several of the students I meet, 'Have you been using this unexpected break to catch up on your studies and projects?' They all reply, 'We have tried, but it is hard to put our minds to it.' I find this to be true for me, too. While not especially fearful—I have been through tornadoes and hurricanes in the United States, so am no stranger to danger—the unsettled situation around me makes keeping up my own routine difficult. The university, I believe, should have not tried so quickly to hold classes again, perhaps shutting down for a week so everyone could recover psychologically ( and especially contact their families ) , then resume the schedule consistently, which would then help students and faculty feel better.

Cecil, another teacher in my department who comes from the United States but who has lived in Thailand for many years, and his ethnic-Chinese Thai wife, Sunee, were in downtown Emei city May 12. Sunee does Chinese painting and calligraphy. She is very good at these arts. Sunee and Cecil were visiting a Chinese master to learn finger-painting techniques when the main quake struck. They and the master made their way down from his sixth-floor studio to the city's main plaza, where Cecil snapped the next scene. ( More to come. )

***

Shaken but solid, conclusion.

Here, friends, I continue the story of the Sichuan earthquake,

It's Wed., May 14—two days after the big quake. It is 3 pm. I am back at my apartment. I receive a telephone call from Andy. 'Will you come to Teddy Bear today?' he asks. 'Students are here, and we want to see you.' I head over, and find ten students hanging out. Many students from Southwestern University know that international guests who come to climb Emei Mountain stay at Teddy Bear Hotel. It is Emei's only hostel geared to the backpacker trade, and gets favorable mention in the most popular tourist guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet. Students go there to practice their English, French and Japanese on the guests.

The students and I play video games on the laptops they have brought. Counterstrike, a kill-the-terrorists shoot-fest, is all the rage among the young men in China. Otway, a talented freshmen English major who has toured the United States with his high school classical Chinese music performing group, who himself dresses punk or ghetto, shows me the red and black barbed-wire-design tattoo he has just gotten on his lower left leg as a remembrance of the earthquake and those whose lives it has touched. If you grok punk subculture, this sort of memorial makes sense. ( You can see Otway in the second photo attached to part one of this travelogue. He is wearing a gray T-shirt, looking toward the camera. ) Otway and I watch a movie he has downloaded from the Web to his laptop: Constantine, made in 2005 from the DC/Vertigo Hellblazer comic books ( these began publishing in 1988 ) . Keanu Reeves stars as John Constantine—a psychic trying to earn his way into heaven by hunting demons—who must learn that the virtue of sacrifice, not any amount of meritorious works, is the price of admission. The plot line begins with a big hole: how did the Spear of Destiny, the Roman soldier's spear that pierced Christ at the Crucifixion ( according to one of the New Testament accounts, John 19:34; the detail does not appear in the earlier, Synoptic Gospels ) get to California? But from that point, the film is a literate and sophisticated occult adventure. It is also cool, visually. ( Steven and John in Chicago, you would enjoy its religious and supernatural references, and the philosophical subtext of weighing the moral justice of a Manichaean or dualistic universe. )

We order dinner, a pretty good spread. When Teddy Bear's cooks try to prepare Western-style food for the international guests, they don't get it quite right. But at making Sichuan cuisine, they are OK. Then, with discount passes arranged by Andy, three of the young women students, three of the men, and I, go to the Lingxiu Hot Spring resort, a short walk up the tourist neighborhood. We bask in the hot water, have splash wars, see who can swim the farthest underwater, and sneak up behind each other to try to pull down the target's pants ( the guys, anyway, do this ) .

In China, it is assumed every youth will have a boyfriend/girlfriend, and get married and produce the allotted one child as quickly as possible. ( Members of designated minority ethnic groups may have more than one child, according to China's family planning policies. This makes Han Chinese feel that the minorities receive preferential treatment. ) Although Southwestern University is a technical and engineering school that attracts seven times more young men than women in these traditionally male fields, the students cannot escape this social expectation. When the girls had, for the moment, gone off to a different pool at the hot spring, and we guys relaxed and felt at ease to speak some quiet deep thoughts, one of the men remarked, 'It is better without the girls.' Sometimes the requisite boy-girl dynamics do become burdensome to the Chinese themselves. In time, if it modernizes socially as well as economically, China may come to accept a range of lifestyles—marrying late or never, having children or not as one prefers.

In one of the rare comparatively clear nights at Emei, a near-full moon glows through wispy clouds. When we leave the hot spring at its closing at midnight, we guys, waiting for the girls to finish dressing ( like American women, Chinese women take longer than men to get ready, they just have more to do ) , read the ads posted around the facility. One of the ads says the best time to enjoy the waters is late at night with friends or lover under a full moon. What timing.

We walk back to Teddy Bear Hotel, having taken first-floor rooms ( easier to run from if another quake came ) for the night. Most tourists have cleared out from Emei, so Andy has plenty of space. There are almost no tourists here even now. For a while the government limited travel in the province. Several areas had already been put off limits to keep visitors away from the Tibetan freedom movement during the spring. The hotel and restaurant owners and tour guides are hard hit this season, although tourism may pick up when the Olympics approach later in the summer.

As we set out back to Teddy Bear, one of the young men speaks for all us guys in the group: 'I need food, cigarettes, and beer.' The staff has gone home, so the kitchen is closed. We get Sichuan-style barbecue from a vendor near the hotel, pass around the cigarettes, raid Andy's cooler for beer, and toast one another. Ryan, who oversees a small pub by the west gate of the university, and who is astoundingly knowledgeable about American and Caribbean pop music, has brought his guitar, and plays us some tunes—not too loudly, for the hotel's few guests have gone to bed. 'Earthquake party!' Ryan says, reminding me of the 'hurricane parties' Floridians have. I heard a similar statement from students and colleagues a number of times over the following days. While we are profoundly aware that a tragedy has struck, and are not insensitive or disrespectful, we are making our own kind of therapy. One of the young men that evening remarked, as we were lounging in the hot spring, 'For a while I completely forgot about the earthquake.'

Andy's wife, Shirley, assembles a makeshift alarm to wake us up in case of another quake. She stands empty beer bottles, of which we drained plenty, on end on a glass lazy Susan on one of the cafe tables. Meanwhile, most of the Southwestern University students are staying in canvas-covered pavilions the school has set up on the main sports field and on badminton and basketball courts near the library. The college radio station, which broadcasts through loudspeakers around campus with student announcers in the morning, at lunchtime, and at dinnertime, is operating all day and into the evening, patched into local radio so people can hear the news as it unfolds. Attached are two photos from this night showing the tent city on the sports field. All over Emei, people sleep outside on sidewalks, in parks and plazas, on mats, in tents, under makeshift shelters, and in their cars.

Monday 19 May, a week after the main quake. Around lunchtime I receive a phone call from the officer in the university administration who handles affairs relating to international teachers and visitors. She tells me that the school will go into three days of mourning for those lost or uprooted in the quake. There will be classes, but play no music, she says, commensurate with a nationwide period of mourning. Friends put aside their beloved mahjong playing for the duration. Ryan wears black as a memorial ( although traditionally in China, white is the color of mourning ) . China comes to a stop at 2:28, while for three minutes cars, trains, and buses sound their horns. I am sitting at one of the concrete tables outside my residence building, reviewing my lesson outlines, when the moment arrives. I stand and put my palms together in the Buddhist gesture of blessing for these minutes of solemn remembrance.

Late that night, I am concluding my day by answering my emails, while drinking a glass of wine. There arises an inexplicable hubbub on the street. The campus loudspeakers fire up again, but I cannot quite make out what they are saying. At 11:45 pm the building superintendent and one of the tenants pound urgently on my door. 'Just a minute,' I yell, as I am again in naturist mode and have to pull on a pair of shorts. They inform me that a 6.0-7.0 earthquake is coming. It was reported on TV, so it must be true! About ready to retire for the night, and now utterly impatient with rumors, I once more exasperatedly point out that scientists are not able to predict earthquakes—and isn't it significant that this prediction comes on the day when everyone is commemorating the original shake and happens to have that fright on their minds? Shaking their heads at my obliviousness, they leave, with an air of having discharged their obligation in warning me.

Half an hour later the same functionary who told me about the university's period of mourning comes by, with the building manager in tow, to try to persuade skeptical, obstinate me to evacuate. ( And again I have to put my pants on to answer the door. ) An earthquake is coming! It is official! The government says so! ( It is difficult for independent-minded Americans to grasp how many Chinese believe their government is all-knowing and infallible. ) Thank you, you've done your duty, I tell the two. I swallow the rest of the wine in my glass, log off the Internet, and go to bed.

I later learned that a statement that a 6.0-7.0 scale earthquake was possible had been issued by the National Seismology Bureau, covering their butts in case a major secondary shock did at some time occur. After all, they failed to warn of the big one on 12 May. The statement was read on a Chengdu TV station, throwing the city and surrounding areas into a panic. I should have been more patient with the people who came by to warn me. They were doing the right thing according to their lights.

Nothing, of course, happened. Though there was, six days later, an aftershock nearing 6.0, that toppled homes already weakened by the initial quake. All the same, on this one-week anniversary, students and local residents returned to their tents and slept outdoors, classes were cancelled for the following day, and for the day after that. It rained that night again. The whole scenario was eerily reminiscent of the circumstances of the 12 May quake.

A couple of days later, I ran into one of my students, who does passable work though he has not been especially prominent in my classes. I asked him how he was doing. As he spoke with pain clearly showing in his face, I found out his hometown is one of those demolished by the 12 May quake. I felt devastated. Yet he, not forgetting good manners, gave me a cigarette and the canister of Sichuan green tea he has carrying in his satchel. I was moved.

After many scares and interruptions to class schedules, the university administration has shut the school down until 23 June. ( For some reason, too, the school has stopped the city buses from coming on campus, to the inconvenience and annoyance of students and staff. ) About half the students have gone home, though teachers are expected to remain in residence, and the dean of my department handed out translation assignments to both faculty and students to work on during the hiatus. Things will settle down, and classes will then recommence for the four weeks necessary to finish out the semester. This cuts summer travel time, on top of the lost month last summer, when students and teachers were retained in preparation for the autumn semester's showpiece visit by the provincial and national ministries of education.

Today, three weeks since the event, perhaps we can gain some perspective. What can we learn from it?

Maybe humility.

Holding a life membership in the Sierra Club ( America's premier environmental awareness and appreciation organization ) , but a former 'green' who has given up hope that materialistic mankind will curb its rapaciousness enough even to ensure its own survival, I wonder whether any observers are chastened by the comparative helplessness of seemingly omnipotent humankind—rearranging the world's topography to our liking, changing its climate possibly not ultimately to our liking—in the face of nature's power. Respect nature, cooperate with her, do not try to dominate her.

My Chinese fellow teacher Nick has an interesting take on the event: the earthquake is a reflection of the maladjustment of Chinese society. Moreover, he notes, the disaster occurred right where massive projects are underway to reroute and dam rivers for power, an effort to exploit nature rather than work with it. Here is a very Chinese idea. When I read the Confucian and Taoist classics, I often encounter statements of the form, 'When the emperor rules benignly in accordance with the Mandate of Heaven, and the people are well-kept and happy, then the earth will yield abundant harvests and there will be peace throughout the land.' Humans, Heaven ( a metaphor for ultimate principles ) , and nature are connected in a web of mutual influence, so that good or bad things among human conduct are mirrored in the physical world. When society is in harmony, dragons ( in China, those are water creatures, notwithstanding their fire-breathing persona in Western legend ) come to bring life-giving rains. Phoenixes appear, as do chi lin ( kirin, in Japanese ) , an auspicious beast that looks like a combination of dragon, horse, and deer, a dear creature of delicate sensibilities who only shows itself during times of beneficent rule. This ancient idea, at first odd to Americans who have been trained in a brand of physical science that sees humans as separate from and manipulating nature, a pure materialism in both the ontological and moral senses of the word, is close to the Gaia philosophy proposed by British chemist and physician James Lovelock in the 1970s, which views the earth as an organic whole. To Westerners it sounds New Agey. The more I move in Chinese circles and come to 'feel' Chinese philosophy, the more wise it seems to me.

For an American living and working in China, this is an amazing time. I watch the country develop economically, while remaining feudal socially and politically. How will the two reconcile or synthesize? I watch publicity about the Olympics, intended as China's debutante appearance as a budding world power. And now I have been present during another event that will go into the history books. Decades from now people will be speaking of the Sichuan quake of '08. An indelible experience.

Friends in China, it is an honor to share with you in this sad time, to encourage you. Friends from across China and around the world who, when the big quake hit, seeing the maps in the news and recognizing that I live near the quake area, wrote and phoned me to be sure I am safe, know that your love touches me.

Tom Emei Yinshi, the Hermit of Emei Mountain

Tom Lane holds degrees in psychology and sociology, and has worked as a lawbook editor and a field archaeologist in Mexico and the Midwest. When in Chicago, he is a frequent speaker in interfaith forums and active with the Windy City Gay Naturists. Tom is now in his third year in China, serving as associate professor of culture at Southwestern University, Emei, Sichuan. He practices tai chi and Buddhist meditation, and hikes the peaks and forests, from which he takes his Chinese name, Emei Yinshi—'the Hermit of Emei Mountain.'


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