School Surprise and Trip to Beichuan

Tuesday: March 30: I started the day with big plans for my four scheduled classes. I had written a skit for the characters Michael Jackson, Yao Ming, Lady Gaga and Mr. John (me). With several “props” (funny masks, noses, hair, an MJ hat and a basketball jersey), my first (8:15) class performed the skit to the howling delight of their classmates. They especially enjoyed the rather short young man who played Lady Gaga with great flair, frilly scarf wrapped around his neck, bejeweled sunglasses, and cheesy purple hair (sorry didn’t take my camera today – will have more opportunities throughout the week.) The main purpose of my skit, other than entertainment, was to inspire them to create their own skits, using characters and dialog of their own choosing. I had the class divide into four groups and asked each to develop their own skit. This didn’t work out very well – I did get one group to perform but the others were either too disorganized or shy. I think the main problem is the class size is so large that each “group” had more than 15 people each: not conducive to a small-group dynamic of solving a problem. I have since started using smaller groups of 4 each and this, sometimes, works a little better. I finished the class by asking them to ask me more questions, signing autographs, and letting them sign my “memory book.” One boy asked me to sign my Chinese name which I did and he seemed to think he had a real treasure, rushing off to his seat shouting something excitingly – obviously they are not put off by my lousy calligraphy. They also wanted me to pose for photos taken with their camera-phones and I got quite a few good-bye hugs.

Ten minutes into the second lesson of the morning, I was interrupted by my teaching coordinator, Mr Zhang, who asked me to step outside the classroom where he told me the headmaster of the school was going to take me to Beichuan. I found this a bit odd since I already knew that was planned for next Saturday. But it became clear that he meant we were leaving for Beichuan now. Having been a teacher in China before, I wasn’t too shocked to hear about such a last-minute change – this class and the next 2 classes would have to be handled by someone else. I was also asked to follow him to the playground where the school was going to give me some flowers. As we descended the 6 flights of stairs to the playground, he told me I could give my speech to the students (it became clear he really meant should). This school only has assembly (flag ceremony) on Monday mornings. I had missed giving the speech the first day because I arrived Monday afternoon. My second Monday was rainy so I was told I could give it the following week. So, I was a bit surprised when it happened on Tuesday at mid-morning. I didn’t have my notes with me but I figured I could probably get by without them because I had practiced quite a bit.

Mr. Yang (the correct name for the headmaster who had taken me to Li Bai’s Memorial: I had been incorrectly calling him Mr. Wang) introduced me to the 3000 students and approximately 200 teachers and then handed me the microphone. I spoke first in English and told them my name, about my family, and why I was here. Everyone seemed to enjoy it – the kids responded to my “It’s nice to meet you…” with a very loud “Nice to meet you too!” After I finished in English, I gave the same (hopefully) speech in Mandarin. Kerry, my teacher friend whose English is excellent, told me she thought my Mandarin was very, very good and that everyone could understand me, so I was very happy. She also told me that Mr. Yang had said some very nice words about me to the students… something to the effect of “… this man has a very kind heart to come here and volunteer to help you learn English.”

At the end of my speech, Mr. Yang called a student up to the stage and she presented a beautiful bouquet of roses and lilies to me. At this moment, they are making my hotel room smell wonderful. The whole thing happened very quickly and, unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera so I didn’t get it on video. I hope someone at least got a photo on one of the camera phones.  Immediately after the speech, I followed Kerry and Mr. Zhang away from the podium to be introduced to Mr. Bian, the real headmaster of the school. (Mr. Yang is actually Assistant Headmaster Yang. One of the things I like about the Chinese people is they are very forgiving of my ineptitude in learning their names.)

Mr. Bian ushered Kerry and me into his chauffeured car for the trip to Beichuan.  Beichuan was one of the two hardest-hit areas of the 2008 earthquake. I knew that it was the sight of terrible loss of life and property and I knew that many of the dead were school children. I was a little uncertain about wanting to see it but they seemed to understand my interest and also seemed happy to do something for me. Kerry and I sat in the back and Mr. Bian sat up front with the driver. Through Kerry’s competent translation, Mr. Bian and I enjoyed a nice conversation which ranged from teaching differences between our countries, to fatherhood (he has a daughter 29 years old who is a journalist in Beijing), to the American health care issue, to the American civil war. He had visited Germany and remarked he especially enjoyed their blue skies – something I told him we had in America too. He asked me why I thought that was and I said it’s because much of the world’s manufacturing base is now in China. I quipped that “America makes movies and China makes everything else” – they laughed and I’m pretty sure they understood it as gross exaggeration.

As we left Mianyang city and headed north(?) toward Beichuan, he explained to me that the Beichuan city disaster area can be entered only with government permission but that he was an acquaintance of the local “governor” of the area and he would get us in. The governor would also treat us to lunch. I started wondering why a lowly volunteer teacher should receive such special treatment but they made it clear that they wanted to do something to show their appreciation for my efforts.

As we approached Beichuan, we rode on a smooth new highway and viewed hundreds of workers along the roadside, planting trees and performing other manual tasks. Some earthquake damage was apparent in some small buildings whose roofs had collapsed. As we got closer, we passed an area of massive construction of low (~5-stories) residential apartment buildings. This area is destined to become the “new Beichuan” – no one lives in these buildings yet but they are nearing completion. My understanding was that most of the surviving residents of “old Beichuan” are living in temporary housing in nearby cities. As we left new Beichuan, the road became rougher and our vehicle became one of the few regular cars, among hundreds of large earth-carrying trucks, buses, and emergency vehicles. It was slow going because the road narrowed to a single lane at spots and traffic from both directions alternated at going through. Ruts formed by the big trucks were large enough to worry me about our car getting stuck – but we made it through. I started regretting my request to see Beichuan – it was clear that access was difficult and that cleanup efforts, almost two years later, were still underway. I told Mr. Bian I knew he was a very busy man and that, if it was so difficult to get into Beichuan, we shouldn’t do it. But he insisted he had nothing better to do than to spend the day showing me Beichuan (we were gone from 10am until about 5pm.)

Nearing old Beichuan, we entered a deep valley surrounded by steep, forested mountains. The air was quite dusty from all the large construction vehicles and the sunlight was limited by the mountains and the overcast sky. Our car sped up a steep hillside road toward the restaurant where the governor awaited us. This area is the homeland of an ethnic group named the Qiang and this restaurant was run by a Qiang family. As you’ll see in the photos, these people dress very colorfully. There were aspects of their dress and architecture that reminded me of Native American cultures. We were greeted in the courtyard of the restaurant with a cup of tea, a Qiang custom. After some photos with the brightly attired young ladies, we met the governor and were escorted to a dining area just off the courtyard. The governor, as you’ll notice in the photos, was not what I expected. He was plainly dressed and didn’t seem to project a sense of authority. Actually, this is also true of Mr. Bian, my school’s headmaster – both men are very easy to talk to (through a translator), but both command the respect of their subordinates and locals.

We were treated to another Chinese-style banquet, with way too many dishes for the four of us to eat. One of the dishes was a “small, wild animal” that cannot be bought in the supermarket. They all laughed when I asked (through mimicry) if they had shot the game with a gun. Oh no, guns are illegal in China – these animals were captured in traps. I learned they were not rabbits but Kerry wasn’t certain what they were called in English (perhaps she didn’t know what they were in Chinese); but I ate it and it was tasty.  As with every banquet, the toasts were started and everyone received a generous cup of what appeared to be rice wine. I had to again refuse the wine and, again, they seemed to not understand that I couldn’t just taste a little. At this point, the Qiang entertainers came to our table to sing us three welcome songs – each song wishing us well in some way – and each song was followed by a drink.

Video: Welcoming Song by Qiang Minority Members

When the governor seemed hurt that I wouldn’t even taste the wine, I made a decision to make him happy. The situation of being welcomed into a local culture that has suffered so much in recent years made me decide to have a drink – the first drink I’ve had in almost 27 years. I made sure it was a very small drink but was still amazed at the strength of the liquor and how it generated a feeling that had been so familiar to me when I drank regularly so many years ago. I didn’t worry too much about “falling off the wagon” because of this. I have no intention of drinking any more, even at the inevitable future banquets.

After lunch, our driver followed the governor’s car to the gated entrance to old Beichuan, signaling to the Army guards to allow us to follow him in. Once inside the gate, he waved and turned his vehicle around to exit. As we drove down the dusty, narrow street, the scope of the disaster hit me with full force. I had thought Beichuan was a mountain village – that word conjures up a rural setting with few buildings. But Beichuan was a fairly large city, with five or six square blocks of large (5 to 10 stories) buildings lining the streets. What you see there now is both awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. Many buildings were reduced to rubble and many more are partially collapsed or leaning precariously. Everywhere, there is evidence that this was a city much like Mianyang where I live now, with thousands of people going about their normal lives when the earthquake struck. The signs for government buildings (police) and businesses (grocery stores) still adorn the buildings, making it impossible to think of the scene impersonally – you are forced to consider what a hellish event it must have been for so many. Of course, the most heartbreaking part of it all is the ruins of the schools – we placed a bouquet of flowers in remembrance of all the dead buried at a site adjacent to a primary school where almost every child died when the mountain behind the school buried it. It brought me to tears to think of all the heartbroken parents who lost their only child in the disaster.

Throughout the city, you see people burning candles or incense in front of the building where a loved one perished. Indeed, every building has a makeshift altar in front and you can see the remnants of so many previous offerings. There is one special site marked by a large stone with “5.12” (date of the disaster) on it, which is apparently the site of a mass grave of many, many people. We stopped the car here and placed flowers the headmaster had brought at the foot of the memorial. Just behind this area, you can see a flagpole rising above the ruins of the primary school – the flagpole that was used in the morning assembly for the students. Sad bugle music is playing on a loudspeaker and there were no dry eyes among us. Kerry actually lost an aunt in this city – one of many people whose body was never recovered. I am attaching some photos and videos from my visit – I didn’t take very many because it seemed intrusive to the sacred memorial.
There are many workers in old Beichuan, still cleaning up the mess and making it safer. My understanding is it will not be resettled – instead, the core of the destruction will be left as is to serve as a stirring memorial to all those who died.

Video: Sad Journey Through Earthquake Destruction

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