China Journal: Letters From the Flip Side Episode 4

Events of the Spring and Summer of 2008 were great and terrible

The Terrible Sichuan Earthquake

I was working at the magazine at the time of the horrendous earthquake. We were told by the government the day after the earthquake to expect at least 50,000 deaths. Hong and I watched the terrifying photos and videos, and both of us cried so much at the sight of all the children who died. I wrote the following article for the magazine.

The earthquake hit at 2:28. The epicenter was Wenchuan County. The earthquake was a magnitude 7.9. It is estimated that over 50,000 have died. These are countable things, tangible, hard, linear details — objective reality. But objectivity is annihilated with the first photos, the first mention of the children who died. Instantaneously the significance of the dry objective two-dimensional facts are negated by the hyperrealism of the actual grievous death of a child a death repeated thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times.

The stultifying horror of oblivion stares into our deepest souls from those haunting images of the everyday childhood event of going to school transformed by a nightmarish cataclysm into a child’s final destiny. The simplest act of wearing a favorite shirt or the selection of a brightly colored hair ribbon becomes the focal point of a photograph of a fallen school building — crumbled cement and steel nightmarishly contorted and to one side — a pink shoe, a Mickey Mouse backpack, a tiny hand grasping the so very empty air — forever frozen in one final desperate grasp for survival. The images chase away our dreams and force nightmares upon us — a soldier grimly stacking the backpacks of children who have died, a pile of identity cards, a mother’s numbing wail… My heart is shattered as I cannot help but think of my home and my children on the other side of the planet.

I cannot look at the images without reflecting upon the thousands of days of my children’s’ childhoods. I am a single parent of three. Although all three of my kids have “grown up” I cannot separate the adult from the child I once sang lullabies to and rocked to sleep; a million images have swirled around my consciousness these woeful days and chased away sleep. My youngest daughter’s purple hair ties, my middle daughter’s pink socks and my son’s frayed yellow t-shirt. The touch of their tiny hands as we walked to school, the laughter, the singing, the nearly imperceptible softness of their sleeping exhalations as I checked on them before whispering, goodnight, sweet dreams — these are my personal treasures. During their teenage years, I stood by them through all the turbulent emotions and raw tribulations of becoming adults.

Now I am ten thousand miles away and I would give anything to touch my children’s hands right now and send them off to sleep. But this gnawing emptiness is nothing compared to the horrifying loss of the thousands of families because I know I will touch my children’s hands again, hear their voices, see their smiles — but my soul hemorrhages for the thousands of grieving parents and their relatives. In an instant the bright promise of posterity disintegrated. The glowing candle of life from their darling babes was snuffed out — gone like smoke, ashes to ashes, and dispersed into eternity’s dusty shade.

We all are stunned. Some of you reading this have loved ones affected by the earthquake and lost those dearest to you. The impacts of this quake are rebounding around the earth in billions of intimate aftershocks. My friends and family in America contacted me asking what they could do, and I suggested they donate to the Red Cross for now until the long-term charitable trusts can be set up. Americans and the world will compassionately donate to the victims. Charities have responded in unprecedented fashion. The government is to be commended for such open and immediate media coverage. The world is in shock from the images and reports, but these horrific images have united us as well. In these days following the earthquake, I have witnessed a brilliant light shining in the eyes of people all around me. The brokenhearted tears have given way to unyielding determination. Tens of millions of people are opening their hearts.

I am a teacher and I see hundreds of young faces around me optimistically turning their youthful energy towards helping the victims of the earthquake. The disaster has brought out the very best in the youth of China. The students have spontaneously organized donation drives, t-shirt sales, remembrance ribbons and other charitable efforts related to helping the victims. The unstoppable vitality of these young hearts blazes with compassion. I am so proud of all of my students as this is the first time for many to personally deal with such a grim horror. I was told of a teacher who died shielding four of his students with his body, and of another teacher who personally led over 70 students for two days across the mountains to bring them safely out of the disaster area. These are just two of the thousands of heroes born out of the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

I am writing this one week after the earthquake as aftershocks continue to hit the region, but the ongoing impact of the earthquake will be felt for decades. The catastrophe has changed China’s social fabric. Monday May 19 was my son’s birthday. He has just graduated with honors from the university. On that day, at precisely 2:28, I stood with my students in silent remembrance of the victims of the earthquake and many of us wept. Hundreds of millions across the country stood together and stared into the dreadful darkness created by this calamity. A lake of tears flowed from two billion eyes.

In the stillness of those 180 seconds, the light of hope brightened above the deep sorrow. The healing of a billion hearts began. We cannot know with certainty what changes will occur for the nation, but we know the quake’s impacts upon us personally. I offer a poem written as a eulogy from my heart to the children who died — we all will remember you, and for all of us here now, please give kindly and gently to those mothers and fathers and blessed people who now are homeless and grieving — we will not let them suffer alone and despair. I am proud to be part of the rising tide of charity which is washing across China. May this generosity bring the shining light of hope to those in need.

You Lived in Innocence

From your first breath to your last / You lived in innocence / Each of your days were a blessing / The small prints you left in eternity’s dust are jewels / Sparkling, wondrous treasures / You lived in innocence / Your final heartbeats / Your last breaths / Will be all around us each moment we live / But we must release the grim images of your final moments / The dismal weight of those petrifying instants is too much to bear / We who live / Hear your innocent laughter in the birds’ song / Catch your breath in the gentle evening breeze / The softness of your lovely hair / The sweet touch of your gentle hands / Touch us from the shadows of the unknowable / Your mothers and fathers are our sisters and brothers now / In your death you have become the sons and daughter of us all / We who live / Remember / You lived in innocence / Each of your all too few days

I Volunteered for Jet Li’s One Foundation Charity

Because of the earthquake I did some editing for Jet Li’s Charity the One Foundation. It was arranged by a friend who worked in the sales department of the magazine where I was foreign editor and lead writer. In return she got me two tickets to a celebrity F1 race in Shanghai. Hong and I went and it was great. I went to a lot of races in the US, because of my Dad, who raced motorcycles and loved racing.

To start, we were standing outside listening to everyone speak. Hong was too short to see Jet Li. She said she has been a big fan of his for years. So I picked her up and held her over my head — she wasn’t very heavy. Well, Jet Li notices this little woman rising up from the crowd and looks over at us. She shouts, “Wo Ai Ni.” I love you! I look up at her and say Oh no you love me. I think I was probably the only non-Chinese person there. A whole lot of famous celebrities were there to support the charity and about a dozen or so raced — slowly, around the gigantic track. When Jet Li was practicing waving the flag at the end of the race, I yelled out I love you too! He looked over at me smiling and waved.

Jet Li One Foundation Charity Celebrity F1 Race in Shanghai May 2008

June 25 2008
It was a busy month. Contract is signed. I am the number one foreign teacher at the university — according to my students and the foreign affairs people. So they wanted me back.
My son’s graduation went well, and he is working in IT — right out of college — super smart and a truly marvelous person. I chat with my girls about once a week as my oldest goes to community college and works part time while my sweet youngest daughter works overnights. They called me on Father’s Day. I am the luckiest father and so grateful for every hour I spent with my kids as they were growing up as a single dad. Without question if not for them I would have died when the Grim Reaper twice reached for me. I thank God every day for my kids. They will always be my greatest treasure.

Featured in the largest newspaper in the province, as editor/writer/lecturer
Some of my students waiting for the Olympic torch to run through Hangzhou
I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the West Lake to see the torch, so my students took photos for me
Olympic Torch running around the West Lake area, security was very tight to say the least
Tsinghua University

Hong and I went to Beijing for 5days/4nights for about $300 — hotel, tours, admissions, food — included. We wanted to see Beijing before the Olympics, when everything will be clean and shiny. It will be the completion of a full circle for me — going back to a moment of great revelation in Beijing in 2003 when I was struck by a divine light. The echoes of that moment resounded through my life — like a standing wave in the ether, until now, somewhat through happenstance, I returned and walked in the Temple of Heaven, climbed the Great Wall, wandered the streets, not as a nomad — but with the woman I love. What a difference five years made.

Olympic Stadium Bird’s Nest month before the Olympics

Back from Beijing, and I felt energized, like a well fed watchdog. I did manage to find ample craziness in what will be the world’s most talked about city in thirty days. The subway is nice and cheap — it costs about 40 cents to ride around the city — and it is cool — since it is underground and not heated by the murky sunshine of Beijing in summer.
Over half of my photos were deleted off my memory stick from either badly tuned scanners at new airport, or sunspots.

Highway sign for Beijing Olympics Village

The unique moment came when were involved in a car chase. A driver cut off our van, our driver got nonplussed — PISSED. She chased the driver and cut her off several times until she banged into our van. Well, the driver stopped for a few seconds and then made a frightened rabbit’s run — too bad for her our driver was angry and more than a wee bit psycho. So our driver gave chase, down narrow roadways, making a mad serpentine path through horrified bicyclists and rush hour’s chaotic traffic. As the tour guide called in our location, the van driver cut off a dozen motorists nearly pancaked two or three cyclists and made an old granny piss herself. We caught the scofflaw at a traffic light and boxed her in. Our driver was out of the van in a flash followed by the business man, his wife and sister, and yours truly who was dragged against his will into oncoming traffic to further intimidate the petrified driver. The police showed up, and there was a heated discussion, made all the hotter by the blazing sun.

Finally an agreement was reached, and we drove to a designated side street. The motorcycle cop pulls in front and the driver behind. The van driver, still with bulging neck veins, hops out. The driver comes up and peals off 500RMB (about $85) and gives it to the smirking van driver. Well, it turns out that the van driver deliberately caused the fender bender, and if the other driver would have waited she would have been not guilty and the van driver would have been in hot water. It was a nice epiphany as to the workings of another gear in the system. I am the only foreign devil I know who has ever been in a car chase in China.

Emperor’s Throne Forbidden City 2008

Everything had been repainted and repaired in the Forbidden City. In 2003, I spent my first day in China wandering around the gigantic palace complex. I walked so much my big toe nails came off — new shoes. I bought the first of several paintings there that day also :-)

Great Wall stretching into the distance. The haze disappeared during the Olympics because factories closed
Summer Palace

What we saw of the Olympics area was incredible. You can’t get within 1000 yards of the stadium and no where near the Olympic Village. Nonetheless, we did manage to see some very cool architecture which will be the focus of the world soon — truly futuristic.
I found some new luck-magic — a small totem of a magical creature called PiXu (pee-shoe) which eats but never poops, and brings magical success. I bought him at a jade shop on the spot where emperors used to come and ask the heavens for their blessing. The Chinese rub their hands in ritualistic fashion over the surface of lucky objects — like the large PiXu statue — I rubbed my wallet on it and spanked it several times to wake up the spirits — it worked that same day as I got my payment from the university they have been withholding while waiting for final exams to be finished.

Scene from the Long Corridor in the Summer Palace


Along with three billion or so people who watched the opening ceremony, I watched with Hong and her sister. We rode bikes to the supermarket and got food along with a bucket of KFC. It was very well done I thought. I especially liked the march of athletes, even though they marched in order of Chinese brushstrokes. It was strange seeing Bush and Putin right at the moment Putin’s troops were pushing into Georgia. Even saw Henry Kissinger in his short sleeve shirt looking old and sweaty. He makes a ton of money as a consultant and speaker here.

The basketball game went as I figured. I thought the Chinese played their best. I was happy Yao Ming scored the first points. and it was fun to watch in a good-natured way with Hong and her sister — I even bought a new TV for the Olympics because I have loved the Olympics since I was a kid.
From the shady side of the street

The man across from our building has a rooftop garden. If you live on top floor you can claim the space.


lost and found again in mistranslation

I was in the newspaper twice this month. The financial newspaper offered a free advertising for one day, and they got such a positive response they gave me an extra day. A reporter and photographer came to my place and sat in on the kids’ class. She wrote about my sense of humor and well thought out teaching.

The writer liked talking to Hong and I, I did a total of three interviews

I am suffering with the Olympics sports coverage here — 2 channels of ping pong and 2 channels of badminton — and endless replays of medal ceremonies and this ear worm pop tune sung by every entertainer in China — including Jackie Chan

the real deal
I miss the kids terribly. I wish they could visit now. But that will have to wait. I am very proud of them every day. Hong is gone for another two weeks — visiting her family. We have different views, but it isn’t always a cultural thing, just two individuals with different opinions. We work it out one way or another.

I was supposed to go and meet her parents, but she forgot to make arrangements. After asking when “we” were going, she started to back-peddle and came back with, you can come, my parents and family don’t need to make any plans, you can just come (three days before leaving). Actually it is more like she didn’t tell them I was coming at all, because she felt we don’t have enough money to offer her mom a large enough sum of money for her blessing or some such economic vs emotion decision. She doesn’t want to get married yet. Money is a gravity well between us, but I am the eternal optimist. The love is there, but the counterbalance with money is a heavy mass to try and move. There is way too much inertia, and I can’t shove against it all the time.

The Tao Cafe
The Tao Cafe. I took this photo from a taxi on the way to the magazine. I’d tried several times to get a good photo from inside the careening cab. I saw the name as good luck on the way across town

So I was on my own these days, but still working as tutor often enough to not really have a vacation. In the end it will work out, as she needs time with her son before he starts back to school, family time and friends, etc. I have determined that it is mostly not cultural but her individual persona so that is something I can deal with.
I am always dealing with society here — 17 different cars, scooters, buses honking, fireworks, loud engines, worn out brakes screeching, talking bus, musical water truck — at the moment, oh yeah, and my neighbor clearing his throat in the hall, and someone burning garlic on a coal fire while they smoke. And when I step outside the door — ah the ten thousand eyes that watch me. China is not for the paranoid.
Remember those people you meet with are just six or seven connections away from someone you respect, or loathe, depends on your point of view.
In the cat bird’s seat at one of history’s greatest preludes



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