Friday, April 11, 2014


Today I spent the first hour of my morning chatting with my conspirators: always a joy!!! In the course of our ramblings, they informed me of a massive earthquake off the coast of Chile (my) last night, which generated typhoons. As soon as our chat was over, I scoured my usual news outlets. Thanks to all that is sacred that no one was injured! Even though the area is still on alert for more severe damage, so far it appears only property suffered. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Closer to home, Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the government seat, suffered an earthquake on Friday night. It was far less severe in magnitude than the Chilean event, only 5.5 on the Richter scale. I didn’t feel a thing!

I had been out of touch while the debate debacle raged on and a bit wrung in the aftermath. I had yet to catch up with world, or even local news. When Evan told me about Hubei Province’s earthquake, I immediately went to I didn’t find any seismic information, but I did learn that that news outlet is hosting a blogging competition! Of course, I signed up. Luckily Evan told me about the earthquake when he did: the deadline for signing up was March 31st. I made it with a day to spare!

If I win this contest, I have Evan to thank.

Incidentally: you might have noticed that postings to my blog are more infrequent these days. The long speculated question has come back: what if I run out of things to say? After nearly 4 years and 500 entries, it was bound to happen. Now I have the chance to make my blog vital and new again. I am recycling entries and submitting them to the contest. So far I’ve had positive reviews. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m done talking with you, Dear Reader.

The Hubei Province earthquake coincided roughly with April Fools’ Day. I love pranking and that day is tailor made for a mischievous imp like me. Unfortunately I have learned that standard pranks and gags do not fare well over here. Things like: ‘I broke my leg and have to go to the hospital’ are met with utmost seriousness and sincere expressions of sympathy and caring. Nobody likes the postscript: HAHA! Fooled you! Happy Fools’ Day!!! Some even got downright mad.

The best April Fools’ gag I ever fell victim to is toothpaste oreos, as described in the Gotcha! entry posted April 1st, 2011. The second best one was this year’s announcement, from one of our school’s administrative groups. It came across our social network, hosted by QQ (China’s premier chat platform). In spite of my not so stellar Chinese, I understood the message to roughly say:

            Due to recent earthquake activity, all classes and administrative functions are suspended from April 7th until April 21st. Classes will reconvene on that day, after students return from their mandatory trip to their hometown. Earthquake readiness exercises will be conducted upon students’, faculty and staff’s return.

This was really disquieting to me. In all my time here, I have never known the Chinese, or anyone at our school to plan any sort of emergency preparation or disaster relief, let alone educate anyone about it or conduct drills. Furthermore, I have never known this school to suspend operation for any reason. Even canceled classes have to be made up.

That reminds me: I have to get with Sam to see when the classes, canceled because of the debate competition are rescheduled for.

Because I only got the rudiments of the message and because I was a bit frantic at the news of this unprecedented activity I asked: does that mean we should prepare to suffer an earthquake?

I experienced an earthquake when I was 10 years old, and that memory is not likely to ever leave me. We lived on the 6th floor of an apartment building in France, and it was just after midnight when it hit, on a steaming July night. We were all still awake because the oppressive heat discouraged sleeping, but we were giving it a go: lights out, stripped to our dainties, lying in bed without so much as a sheet covering us.

My sister and I shared a bed. Feeling the first tremors, she told me to quit shaking the bed. I told her I was not doing anything but trying to sleep. The shaking continued. A cry from my mother: “Everyone up! Everyone out! Down the stairs, don’t wait for the elevator!” What can you do at 10 years old, when you hear such a frantic directive?

My sister and I had no problem getting out of bed, throwing some clothes on and scooting down the hall, where we heard an agonized howl. My brothers had bunkbeds and, while the brother on the lower bunk was sitting on the edge of his bed, the brother on the upper bunk vaulted off his bed and set foot on the lower bunk… right between the legs of the lower bunk’s occupant. Needless to say, Lower Bunk brother had a hard time running down the stairs to escape our now steadily quaking home.

He was the lesser problem. My sister, apparently realizing the danger we were in, went hysterical. Trampling, shouting, crying, flailing about… she was rooted to the landing between the 5th and 6th floor, having only gone down one flight of stairs. A resounding slap from my mother startled her out of her tantrum and she resumed her descent.     

Suddenly, it stopped. We stood stock still in eerie silence, me a few steps up from the 5th floor landing with my hand on the banister. Our downstairs neighbor, a grandmotherly woman from Saudi Arabia, invited us in. She took one look at my sister’s ashen face and gave her a shot of brandy. I suspect my brothers were jealous, as was I. Not because we wanted brandy but because of all the attention given to our sister.

In the aftermath, we children packed all that we held dear. I remember thinking that, if I had to make another quick escape, grabbing a bag with all my things seemed very practical. I’m not sure how the boys arranged their packing but my sister and I fought over what belonged to whom and whose bag our few shared treasures would end up in. We lived out of paper bags containing our possessions for months. I suppose that, even back then I realized the value of preparation.

I recall looking out our bedroom window the morning after. Even the street sign had been gnarled out of true. Buildings across the street suffered broken glass and had a few cracks. Fortunately our building did not suffer any structural damage. I was in awe at the destructive power wielded in such a short time. But that was long ago. 

Since then, I’ve lived through a couple of tornadoes – most recently in a tent with my grandson! I’ve also lived through a house fire. More specifically, suffered through a house fire. The only natural disaster I’ve not been subjected to was a flood. Well, a severe flood. Last year it rained so hard in Wuhan that our campus was underwater and buses could not keep their routes because streets were washed out. I believe I can wait on, or pass altogether on a severe flood, if possible.

My experiences leave me nonplussed at the Chinese’s casual approach to natural disaster. Since I’ve been on campus there has not been so much as a fire drill. There are no sprinkler systems in any of our buildings. I have bars on all my windows. If there is a fire between me and my front door, I will most likely perish for lack of an escape route.

There are no severe weather drills or even information. When I ask my classes: ‘What will you do in case of an earthquake?’ They have no reply. They do not know what to do in case of fire, flood or tornado. They do not have an emergency kit containing food, first aid supplies and other life saving stores and equipment.

And what about the upsurge in violence? The attack at the Kunming railway station last month is a new manifestation of growing civil unrest. These flare ups are getting more common, as are robberies. Does anyone here know how to defend themselves? ‘Run!’, they say. ‘Scream!’ they assert. They have no idea how to stave off an attacker.

And that is ironic, in this country of Kung Fu.

Today I am to give a lecture. Sam asked me yesterday if I had an interesting topic in mind. Immediately I provided: Self defense and emergency preparedness. He approved.

Back to that disturbing message posted on the Administrative Group chat board, the one about the earthquake.

To my anxious query came this reply: Gotcha!!! Apparently the recent earthquake made for a stellar April Fools’ prank, Chinese style. How is that funnier than faking a broken leg?


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