12 May marks the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake which struck China last year. I thank the Straits Times for putting up an insightful account of the earthquake in its 11 May edition, "True grit on the road to recovery". The story brought tears to my eyes as I reflected on the incident which has touched me personally.
I was teaching in Hubei, a province several thousand kilometres away from Beichuan, Sichuan, when the earthquake struck.
I felt a slight tremor but there was nothing that suggested something seriously devastating had happened. I carried on with my class, oblivious to the fact that a huge earthquake has destroyed a beautiful town in beautiful scenic Sichuan. Many lives were also destroyed.
As news flooded in towards evening time, I sensed that the earthquake was major and that many people had perished in the disaster. News stations broadcast the event 24/7 and many Chinese people stayed up all night to watch the live telecast of a disaster that gripped the nation. I remember shedding tears, watching actual events unfolding on television.
It was reality TV at its worse.
I could not bear to watch the raw live telecast of the rescue missions that went on through the night in many parts of the quake-stricken area. It was also my first experience of a major disaster that happened so close to where I was situated. I was most touched by how the Chinese people rallied together and donations poured in by the millions.
When school holidays came in June, I made a personal trip alone to Sichuan to volunteer as an English teacher. Vacancies were however filled up and I decided to journey alone to Dujiangyan city - which saw well over 20,000 people killed by the earthquake. When we reached the town by bus, the devastation was so immense and almost incomprehensible.
I saw ten-storey buildings hanging precariously on one side, left eerily empty by its owners. Huge shopping malls were stripped naked by the force of the earthquake. Roads were also destroyed and cracks on them lined hundreds of kilometres. Debris of school buildings that destroyed thousands of school going children were removed by now. However, you could smell the air of death that hovered around the area.
I tracked around the town aimlessly viewing the destruction by nature - both in awe and sadness. Many people slept by the tents that lined the town. 90 per cent of most houses were certified unsafe for inhabitation. People walked by quietly in the streets - hands in pocket, their minds pre-occupied with the sudden events that erased their once-tranquil lifestyles. I also saw some with legs amputated walking around in crutches. They, however, had smiles on their faces as they were thankful for not being among those who perished in the disaster. It was better to be alive without a leg than totally dead. Life is never the same for many who live there. Each family will know of someone who has either died in the earthquake or is injured. It is a living nightmare for many, to say the least
I could not sleep that night when I returned to Chengdu after visiting the quake site. The scenes of devastation kept playing in my mind and there were times that I trembled in fear and shock. That very night, a mild aftershock came and I rushed out of my hotel room when I felt my bed tremble. I later checked with some residents and they confirmed that indeed there was an aftershock that night.
I wanted to visit Beichuan - the worse hit area of the Sichuan earthquake that killed almost 40,000 people but heard that it was barred for visitation due to the threat of contamination to visitors.
I learned a few precious lessons from the Sichuan earthquake:
1. Never take your loved ones for granted - many parents living in Sichuan sent their children away for school on that fateful day not knowing that would be the last time they would see their loved ones. People had to later dig out lifeless bodies of their children from the debris at the school compound. Some could not even find their children’s bodies. So always treasure each day you have with your loved ones. You never know what will happen to them the next day.
2. Finding fresh new reasons to live on despite adverse setbacks. Many survivors actually wished that they too had been killed in the earthquake - those who had whole families perished in the disaster, leaving them as the only survivors. They have to find fresh new reasons to live on. Those who survived but have been dismembered or incapacitated also need to fight on and find resilience in their difficult situations. So always stay resilient and learn from setbacks to live on purposefully.
3. Live each day as if it is your last. This perhaps is the most important lesson that I have learned here. Many of us live each day as if we have many more days and months to go. The earthquake has taught me that we may never have another day to live. Disaster suddenly strikes and sometimes we have no way of preventing them. Mother nature does not give us ample early warning and when we are caught let us be prepared that we have lived our lives with purpose and meaning.
I will be remembering the 5/12 earthquake with a one minute observance at 2.28pm on 12 May.
Do join me if you can.
Addendum by Donaldson Tan, Head of TOC International:
There are talks of an alleged cover-up on one particular aspect of the Sichuan Earthquake - the structural stability of the school buildings. Many of the school buildings are supposed to be earthquake-resistant. The official Chinese estimate on student deaths is 5,200 while the figure by citizen groups stands at 9,200. The Chinese Government has been cracking down on online disucssions of structural stability of Sichuan school buildings and has prohibited the grieving parents from staging a public rally in Sichuan.