Our farthest-flung correspondent, Julia Throop, who's spent the
past year living in China
teaching English, was nowhere near Sichuan
Province when the magnitude
7.8 earthquake hit on May 12, but the shock was enough to rock her world. She
emails this report.
Everybody knows the feeling. You have one too many cups of
coffee and suddenly your pulse musters the superhuman strength to throw your
entire body into a rhythmic sway. On Monday, May 12, a couple dozen students and
I sit in a ninth-floor classroom in Changzhou,
turning Dostoevsky's pages, sipping some black coffee. Suddenly I felt that
very shaky sensation.
Though I'm seated, I began to rock, involuntarily, back and
forth. I blamed the caffeine, casting a rueful eye on my empty thermos, before
I noticed that the sway wasn't exactly rhythmic, and it was gaining velocity. I
glanced up, expecting to see my students quietly and diligently looking at
their individual computer screens. Instead, they're just as confused as I am.
One-by-one, they're taking off their headsets and looking at each other — and
at the florescent lights swinging above their heads — with expressions of sheer
Okay, it's not just me.
Suddenly someone yells "IT'S GOING TO COME DOWN!" which
does nothing to ease the situation. I stand up to dismiss the class, and within
five minutes we were in front of the building — policemen, teachers, students,
and maintenance crew crowding the entrance.
I ran home to inform my fellow Americans of what I assumed to be
the product of some shoddy Chinese construction and a strong wind. It wasn't
until three hours later during a private tutoring session that one of my
students asked me, casually, if I'd felt "the quick" that afternoon.
"The quick?" I responded. "Yes. The essquick." It dawned on
me. "That was an earthquake?"
A smile made its way from ear to ear, and upon seeing it, her
face melted into an expression of pity and resentment. "Yes. Very dangerous."
Her tone scolded me as much as her words. I tried to explain to her that I'd
never felt an earthquake before. That back home in Boston, Massachusetts
we stack houses and stores on top of each other for breathing space. An
earthquake would be welcome. She didn't laugh. Looking at the headlines that
evening, I found it hard to smile as well. "1000 Feared Dead from
Earthquake in Sichuan Province," "Earthquake of 7.8 Hits Western China."
Coupled with footage of people being pulled from the wreckage; it struck me
that this was a natural disaster of dire proportion. An earthquake in Wenchuan
county, on the other side of China
and roughly 1000 miles from my classroom, had produced dramatic tremors in Changzhou.
Three days later, one of my students, as per his assignment, gave
a short speech. He chose to talk about all the misfortune China has suffered during the past year — Sichuan earthquake
included. His speech, however riddled with statistics and misleading facts,
moved me to share my personal feelings with the class.
"In the past few years, there have been lots of natural
disasters. First, there was the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
Then, Hurricane Katrina. And only recently, there was the cyclone in Myanmar. But I
has had an especially challenging year. I want you all to know that people
around the world are thinking about China right now. I speak for my
friends and fellow foreigners when I say that we're sorry." A small chorus
of "thank you-s" followed, and I felt that, even in a small way, our
two countries bonded.
— Julia Throop
May 15, 2008