Essquick strikes China: A first-person account

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, China, idly 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 panic.

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 think China 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

Changzhou, China, May 15, 2008

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