When I’m working on my computer, my nights tend to stretch until daylight, and that’s how the earthquake found my girlfriend and me still sleeping. We were jolted awake: The wardrobe door was banging, the walls were shaking, and the whole building was wobbling. Outside we could hear screaming and glass shattering. Momentarily, I thought of diving out of the window, then remembered we were on the fifth floor and decided to take my chance down the stairs. We reached the willow tree in the middle of the courtyard and stood there, transfixed, as the ground convulsed, the building swayed and rattled, and bits of concrete spewed out. I could smell dust. And as the ground juddered, for more than five minutes, the thought that I was going to die became more distinct.
Then it was over, and we ran outside the building to the swathe of greenery — a strip of lawns, flowerbeds, and weeping willows — that borders the riverfront where we live in Deyang. It was full of people, and the atmosphere was slightly festive, perhaps fueled by a mixture of adrenalin and relief. We met some friends; one suggested that we get some beers, settle on the grass, and get drunk. I thought it was a bad joke, but like her I also felt a sense of bravado — a boyish conceit that I had conquered a new experience by surviving a strong earthquake. But I didn’t know then that it was only the beginning of a long ordeal.
I live in Deyang, the capital of a county that’s home to three million inhabitants sprawling along part of the mountain-hemmed plain called the Sichuan basin. The mountains to the west are among the highest and most spectacular in the world, holding the richest temperate ecological habitats on Earth. It’s in those mountains, about 150 kilometers from my house, where the earthquake had its epicenter in the geologic fault-lines that divide the mountains from the plain.
But after the ground stopped juddering we couldn’t see any collapsed buildings, and intimations of the widespread devastation reached us is scraps: The telephone network was down, the sirens of emergency vehicles rose to a din, and transistor radios brought news of destruction about places we knew but couldn’t see. In Mianzhu, only 60 kilometers away, where the mountains loom suddenly out of the plain, the verdant slopes I often visited for hiking had been razed (when I went back, after the quake, the lovely traditional farmers’ houses no longer stood, the fruit orchards looked forlorn, and the slopes were slashed with landslides). Deeper into the mountains, two 4,000-meter mountains had collapsed, and further off an entire mountain had shifted and a new mountain arose out of the ground to take its place.
This was how the mountains formed over millions of years. Fault lines crunching one another, chunks of land pushing up or sideways, gravity pulling down, and tension building up, all leading to this moment — a massive earthquake, and geography rearranged. The preceding 1978 earthquake had been weaker; 30 years on, the tension erupted as a big one. And the landscape was in the process of being reshuffled and reborn: fallen mountains had blocked a river, creating a new lake; the river would eventually forge a new course; and the new mountain that had sprouted out of the ground was bald and tentative. Geologists would be studying these upheavals for years.
Nature is essentially in a state of flux, but that’s the anti-thesis of the human condition: Humans seek safety in organized stability. And here in Deyang, any sense of safety had been shattered on that fateful day. At first I thought that we would return home after a few hours lingering outdoors, and that I would write e-mails to friends bragging about surviving one of the largest earthquakes of our time. How foolishly boyish those thoughts seem now that I know that steadiness, once lost, isn’t easily restored. In any case, the tremors that continued throughout the day kept us on edge. I call them tremors because they made the ground shudder briefly, but somewhere in the mountains that are visible on a clear day these were massive convulsions that could fling you off the ground.
We could philosophize, but then we often relapse to the animal condition. And in the riverfront park, people were marking their territory by spreading out sheets — a territory that, in the subsequent days, would grow and grow. We also staked our patch. But it started raining, and we walked down the street to an open-air restaurant where we built our nest: a couple of umbrellas placed against the wind, and chairs set in that concave of umbrellas. I couldn’t sleep. I went to gaze at the dark river, leaning on a lamppost, and I felt quivers rippling up through it. The land was alive, the landscape was being reborn, and I didn’t have to imagine it — I could feel it palpitating. I wanted to marvel at the way the land had become alive; I was experiencing something few others do.
But the human condition dragged me down again. I felt clammy; I needed to brush my teeth and shave; I wanted a warm, dry place, and a soft bed; I wanted to be somewhere where the ground was solid. Yet the next day, more than 24 hours after the earthquake, when we contemplated returning home, we balked. Our home — a cocoon of safety and comfort a day earlier — had now become, in our minds, a death trap. We did eventually go home, but a few minutes after we arrived the building wobbled and rattled again, so we grabbed some more clothes and duvets, and my computer, and went out again, back to the tent settlement.
The tents, made of plastic sheets affixed to flimsy wooden frames, were getting bigger and denser. Our neighbors were putting in sofas and beds and tables and gas canisters and portable burners. We didn’t need any of that: A friend lent us his company car, and we parked it among the tents. We didn’t move the car during the day, lest someone takes our place, and instead used taxis to get around. Otherwise we killed the time like everyone else — watching TV in teashops, snoozing, eating, and mostly dawdling. Idleness made us new acquaintances; we had spontaneous conversations with neighbors we had never noticed or spoken to before. One afternoon we loitered outside the guardhouse at our apartment block, and one of the guards fetched me a chair. He smiled sweetly, and he was curious about the foreigner who lived in a town few other foreigners visit. But I felt coyly ashamed; this was the same man I had gotten angry with a few weeks earlier, threatening to withhold my administration payment after he had failed to deliver a letter addressed for me.
These outpourings of kindness were everywhere. One taxi driver didn’t want any money for a ride. He said he was doing his bit to help. I told him that I wasn’t injured, that my house was standing, and that I still had work. “It doesn’t matter,” he maintained. “Everyone rides for free.”
Effusive generosities and camaraderie gave us some hope. Still, by the third day everything appeared in a trance-like state — people shuffling down the street looked dazed. The relentless tremors kept our fear and anxiety concentrated, and so did the awareness that thousands had died in our county. We couldn’t see them, but we knew them vicariously: Everyone had relatives, or relatives of friends, or friends of friends, who had perished.
For us, our salvation was a matter of geology. Our houses had cracks, broken glass, toppled wardrobes or vases, chipped stucco, cabinet drawers on the floor, but otherwise they were intact. The Sichuan basin, a fertile plain fed by rivers coursing out of the mountains and shielded from wind by the mountains, had now shielded us thanks to its thick solid bedrock. Shockwaves surge along fault-lines or cracks most strongly — in this manner they had rocked towns further from the epicenter than Deyang, and razed towns at the edge of the plain, where the mountains rise. But the bedrock of the plain had subdued the waves before they reached us, and our buildings had held — unlike in Mianzhu, a 30 minutes drive away.
So our condition wasn’t bad, relatively speaking. But we had lost something dear: a sense of safety, and that causes emotional disconnect. We felt estranged from our home in the same way you become frigid in a broken relationship. We regarded our house with cold pity. And that causes confusion and emotional frailty — we saw people turn to religion, superstitions, rumors, allegories, or anything else that offers an answer, however tenuous. Me, at first I resorted to science, learning more about the geography of my province in a few days than I had in a year of living here. But science couldn’t allay my fears, and then I started looking at numbers — my age, the date, time of the day: Did any of those numbers, taken separately or in combination, represent lucky or unlucky numbers according to Chinese folk mythology? Still no answer, and like everyone I wanted to know: Is it safe to go home?
No one dared go home. The tent city swelled by refugees from towns hit worse, and it became a parallel city, complete with stalls of groceries and fast noodles. Then there was the other city, made up of ghostly, empty apartment blocks that were wholly intact but wholly desolate. Everyone feared there would be another big shake, one that would topple buildings this time, and the recurrent tremors made that fear plausible — in the past week we’ve had several six-scale quakes.
Days passed, and we got into a routine. Sleeping in the car, eating out, going home to shower and change. I started working out of a teahouse, the reasoning being that I could run out faster of a ground floor teahouse than a fifth-floor apartment. And this is how I began to understand the anatomy of an earthquake: Surviving the initial big bang is just the beginning. More than a week has passed now; the tremors have diminished to a handful daily. But people remain tetchy; people scramble at the slightest ripple. A door banging, a car roaring past, a raised voice, a guffaw — any jarring or sudden sound makes me jump out of my chair. Sometimes I feel the ground quiver and then wonder afterwards if it was my imagination. Now I understand better. There’s one thing we take for granted in life — a solid ground under our feet. An earthquake takes that certainty away from you. • 28 May 2008