“Please send your prayers to the children of Sichuan.”
Now that’s a strange thing to hear in a place like this. Confused, I looked up at the priest who uttered those solemn words. Crystal and I stood near the center of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, just having witnessed our first mass. What happened in my mother’s home province that could need prayer from people on the other side of the world?
May 12, 2008 – a deadly earthquake of 7.9 magnitude hit Sichuan, China, killing at least 68 000 people. 18 498 people were listed as missing, and 374 176 people were injured. At least 7000 schools collapsed due to poor construction. In one school alone in Beichuan county, 1 300 children and teachers were crushed to death. The entire town was completely demolished – mountains of rubble appearing where buildings once stood.
(http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/05/earthquake_damage_in_beichuan.html) (warning: some of these images are graphic)
Crystal and I were on the last stretch of our Eurotrip at the time. After hearing the unnerving words of the priest in Notre Dame, we hurried back to our hostel to look up what had happened. To our horror, we read about the destruction and saw images of it on the news. I was very worried since my mother’s entire family lives in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. Thankfully, after some frantic messaging, I found out that the earthquake did not hit the city hard and that they were all okay.
The effects of the Sichuan Earthquake were far-reaching. Within China, the entire country rallied together to help with relief efforts. Volunteers streamed in from all parts of the country to help rescue victims and rebuild. Massive amounts of donations flooded in from the entire world. I helped friends put on a fundraiser in local supermarkets to raise money for disaster relief, raising $4747 in two days. The Canadian government matched us dollar for dollar.
Since then, the Chinese government has been putting great effort into rebuilding the province. There has been both praise and criticism for how they have handled reconstruction and compensation for the thousands of people affected. It has already been 2 years since we saw the images of crushed bodies, rescue workers digging through rubble, and people in despair; however, I would like to share with you some of the personal accounts of people I met during my recent trip back to Sichuan. Their stories truly touched me and their spirit and strength continue to inspire me.
- My aunt was in the office tower when the earthquake struck. As soon as she saw the water in the water jug start to move, she knew something was wrong. Everyone started running out of the buildings and pouring into the streets. Cellphone lines were completely jammed by the sheer volume of calls being sent out throughout the city. It took my uncle hours to contact my aunt to make sure she was safe. Out at the university, students and faculty slept out in the open for a week while aftershocks still occurred. No one felt safe enough to go back into the buildings.
“The whole country was moved. We had volunteers come from all over who wanted to help with the rescue efforts. I myself also wanted to go, but I was pregnant with your cousin at the time and your uncle had to work. After the earthquake, I find that people think differently now – about money, about family, and about life.”
- Our tour to LeShan Giant Buddha was a few hours drive outside of Chengdu. Our bus driver had been one of the many volunteers after the earthquake, staying for about 100 days in the disaster zone. Our first tour guide, Xiao Liu, was a very blunt and humorous young woman. She started our tour with a simple request:
“All I ask is that you enjoy your time here. Many of you come from far away, and it is a very rare opportunity to see Sichuan’s beautiful scenery and history. Life is busy and hectic, but while you are here you have to truly be here – take in everything you see and keep them as your memories. Don’t be angered by small matters.”
She then shared with us what she saw 2 years ago:
“My simple wish is to buy a house and marry the man I love. I do not require much more than that. During the earthquake, our parked tour bus was shaken so much that it moved 2 meters. After one of the aftershocks, I witnessed a woman dressed in tattered clothing. Only two people in her family had survived when their house collapsed. She bought an entire batch of cooked ducks from a street seller, paying him 1000 RMB. She took one and gave the rest away. When asked why, she said, ‘I almost lost my life, what is money to me now?’”.
- We were led through the LeShan Buddhist Temple by a second tour guide. Parts of the temple were still being repaired because of damages done by the earthquake even two years after. As we finished our walk through, our guide shared her thoughts with us:
“During the earthquake, there were only two things that I distinctly remember – one being the smell of medicine, two being the smell of dead bodies. Donate to the temple only as much as you are willing to. Do not let people pressure you into giving. To me, it does not matter if you come here believing in Buddha or not. The most important thing is for you to love your family and wish them peace and harmony.”
- Our tour to Jiu Zhai Gou Valley (300 km north of Chengdu) took us into the beautiful mountains of Sichuan where the Aba Tibetan Qiang minority has been living for centuries. The Qiang minority is one of rich culture and tradition. What used to be a population of 200 000 people was dwindled down to 30 000 when the earthquake struck the Wenchuan and Beichuan area where they mostly reside.
On May 12, 2008, the sky turned black and the entire mountain began to shake. As large rocks fell around her bus, she had only a few thoughts on her mind:
“At one point I told myself that if the earthquake became any worse, I would rather jump into the river below. It would be better to drown than be smashed to death by boulders. I thought of my mother and my boyfriend and how much I would miss them. I also thought of how I spent all my life saving money, yet now I could not use any of it. I now know how important it is to cherish life and treat yourself well. Do not be afraid to spend money on things that make you and others happy. You only live once.”
What I learned in Sichuan, I will never forget. Find what is most important in your life and cherish it. Treat the people around you with love and respect. Life is too short to waste on trivial things, so live it to the fullest.