Today marks one year since the Yushu Earthquake. Our school commemorated the event by making all the students come to school even earlier than usual and stand in formation on the concrete slab outside my apartment building. As a freezing drizzle slowly soaked the thousands of students, they listened to speeches exhorting them that “we are all one people, united” and to “remember Yushu,” “pay attention to your studies” and “strive to develop Qinghai” before they observed a minute of silence. The five thousand students were remarkably hushed as they huddled, more cold wet puppies than cadets-in-training, in formation on the vast impersonal slab of concrete, the flag, a red dot in the surrounding sea of grayness, fluttering high above, as if representing the unattainable, or at the very least difficult to attain, feeling of hope for Yushu and its long suffering people, now scattered diasporically across the country. The students stood still as the air-raid sirens turned on, their ghostly wail echoing across the city and through the valley up to the prayer-flagged mountaintops, mistily visible through the rain. I stood by the window, silently, watching.
The moment was soon over. The sirens turned off, the speeches were over; a normal school day began. But for today (at least) Yushu remains in the back of everyone’s minds, or in my mind at least, and has given me much food for thought and a basis for distraction from the tasks at hand. I plan to travel to Yushu in a couple of weeks to check in on the current situation; it will be my first time traveling there, let alone any disaster zone of any kind. I come from the sheltered north east, where the term “disaster” is used for especially heavy snowfalls and ice storms. There are few natural hazards, and though man has done his best in this region to pick up Mother Nature’s slack, life is still remarkably safe, amazingly sheltered. I am not used to living with this kind of risk. Even now, I don’t like thinking about what my apartment building would do (given the sterling craftsmanship of Chinese construction crews) if there were to be an earthquake in Xining.
At first, I spent much of today thinking about how my life would be different if the Yushu earthquake had not occurred. I would presumably be living in Yushu and teaching at the ETP. But I soon realized this was a futile line of thought, not to mention selfish. Though plenty of people are still living in the Yushu area, the town has effectively migrated, with seemingly most of the region packing off to Xining for school or work. Other former Yushu residents are scattered around Qinghai, Sichuan, and other regions of the Plateau; some (specifically the ETP students) have been resettled as far away as Liaoning province in China’s chilly, polluted Northeast. What happens after you undertake such a forced move, and under such strained, difficult, mandatory circumstances? What does your life become? Who do you become?
I have Yushu students in all of my classes, and when I pass by the back of the room, where they sit, chairs in formation but somehow apart from the rest of the class, I think about these things. Who were they before? Who are they now? What do they think about during my class? How does a disaster, a forced migration, a major event in your life change you permanently as a person?
When I first heard about the earthquake, I vastly underestimated its severity and the damage it caused, as well as the impact (physical, mental) it had on the whole of Qinghai. I did not expect I would be writing such a blog post as this one year after the fact. The fact that it’s still at the forefront of everyone’s minds has taught me otherwise. The town of Yushu will recover, changed. The survivors will recover, changed. The disaster sirens will turn off and everyone will return to their lives, going to school and work as normal. But not before a moment of silence.