Monday, May 19, 2008

The Sound of Silence
The Chinese government declared 3 days of official mourning, which included 3 minutes of silence across the nation today (Monday) beginning at 2.28pm - the time the quake began last week. Drivers were asked to to honk their horns at the same time and disaster sirens were also scheduled to wail, which I feared would jar the solemn mood and wouldn't sound too much different than a routine Beijing traffic jam .Nine people in our department stood before two TV sets ticking down the time towards the moment and silent footage of the disaster.

Out a window I could see construction workers in blue jump suits and yellow hard hats standing across the street atop office buildings, most also with hands folded and heads bowed. The horns began howling, while the sirens keened above them and it was as if the entire country was suddenly weeping simultaneously. Two female coworkers dabbed their eyes and I also began choking up.

Three minutes later it ended. True silence for a seconds except for sniffles and the televisions, then the jackhammers, saws and drills at the construction sites began their barrage again.

"So sad, too sad," one reporter whispered, a little embarrassed at her tears.

"It's okay." I said. "Everyone is sad."

Like the US post-911 much of China's Netizens have been trying to find meaning in what it is being called the worst year in the country's history - though none mention the famines in the late '50s or the Cultural Revolution years.

But with the crippling snowstorms of January, unrest in Tibet followed by what they perceive as international insults and humiliations as the "sacred flame" of the Olympic torch made its journey outside the Middle Kingdom, a horrific train crash and now the earthquake, and the Internet is abuzz with material that is familiar in its own way to those who've pondered the coincidences of JFK's and Lincoln's assassinations ("Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln; both had vice presidents from southern states named Johnson..."); the cryptic BS of a fake Nostradamus couplet foretelling the collapse of the Twin Towers, or the "holy cross" or "eagle" or "Satan" seen in smoke or cloud formations etc.

Here it's about numbers: add up the dates of the snowstorm (1-25), the Tibet riots (3-14) and earthquake (5-12) individually and you get "8" - normally an unusually auspicious number for Chinese and the reason the Olympics will kick off on 8-8-08 and why it costs more to get a phone number with multiple 8's.
The five tooth-achingly cute cartoon character Olympic mascots called "Fuwa" - sort of more exotic, colorful Smurfs - are also now seen by some to be harbingers of China's recent miseries. Representing a fish, panda, swallow, Tibetan antelope and Olympic flame those seeking significance in coincidence see the panda as an earthquake warning, as the ravaged area is also home to China's endangered giant panda population; the Tibetan antelope ... well, you can figure that out; ditto for the Olympic flame; the swallow is seen as emblematic for the "kite city" of Weifang in Shandong province where China experienced a deadly train crash last month.
The remaining one is a fish symbol or "water," which online doomsayers suggest could indicate pending horror in the Yangtze River.

Some Taiwan TV stations are also blaming the fengshui of Beijing's new "Bird Nest" Olympic stadium saying it has "interrupted the pulse" of a giant dragon said to lie beneath the country. And there are sincere efforts, saccharine - glurge, really - ways of finding some online comfort, like this poem which C translated for me and is choking people up throughout the country.

For the children of Wenchuan who have died in the earthquake

Hurry child, grab mommy's hands

Child, tightly grab mommy's hand

The way to heaven is too dark and mommy's afraid you'll hit your head

Hurry, tightly grab mommy's hands, let mom go with you

Mommy, I'm scared that the road to heaven is too dark

I can't see your hands since the fallen walls stole the sunshine away

I will never again see your loving gaze

Child, you can go to the road ahead

You will have no sadness, no endless homework, or your father's scolding

You must remember daddy's face and mine

In the next life we will walk together again


Peter said...

I feel kinda strange, when I compare 9-11 to the quake in Sichuan. Back then, all Danes took 3 minutes of silence for 5.000-6.000 Americans.

Now that 20.0000 Chinese died in an earthquake, we have to read about minutes of silence on the net here.

Ben said...

I wasn't aware that Danes were observing silence for those fallen here in the U.S. (I didn't see that on the news). My thanks to them for their concern.

It is certainly a tragedy that so many have died in China in this episode. I just heard tonight on our news that the number is more like 40,000 souls.

Speaking from the standpoint of a builder in Southern California having noted the effects of quakes in Mexico and Central America, it takes episodes such as this, along with governments committed to protecting future lives, enacting legislative upgrades to building codes (that I now daily have to follow and charge my clients for) to keep future events from destroying as much life and property.

As much as I grate against the behemoth building codes that I must adhere to, I recognize that, with every disaster that prompts changes in those codes (the San Francisco and Chicago fires, the Northridge, Sylmar, and San Francisco earthquakes, etc.), I must acknowledge the tenacity of city, county, and state governments in their quest to limit future death and injury.

And they ask me why it costs so much to build in Los Angeles...well, it's really because of what I pay for insurance...

Thanks, Justin, for keeping it current.


Stuart said...

Hopefully the Chinese will be able to look inward for once (thought it doesn't seem like it) and realize that shoddy workmanship is to blame for so many deaths. I think change can really only begin with the acceptance of responsibility for past mistakes. What a sad time for China. Hopefully something good can come out of it.

Peter said...

@Ben - Denmark is a tiny drop in the ocean, but we do feel very close connected to America and western lifestyle (having one ourselves) oposed to the east. Feels strange to rate lives after west/east and not by soul, right? But we omehow did.

Guess it was obvious for us to mourn with the rest of the west. I think Danes felt it was not attack on America only, but western freedom as well.