20
May
08

Earthquakes Of A Different Kind

Today, Allison and I saw one of the strangest things we’ve seen in China during our entire trip.

Here’s the scene. Allison and I at a SPR Coffee Shop (a Chinese-based Starbuck’s knock-off), where, after a delicious lunch of Mongolian food, we’re plotting our schedule for the next week or two, culminating in a possible trip to Xinjiang. And at about 2:30, we hear this loud noise outside, like a car horn, soon joined by other car horns and by what I can only assume was an air-raid siren. The woman working at the coffee shop walks over to a control panel near us (more of a light-switch-looking thing), and flips off the music. Everyone in the shop, except for Allison and I, drops what they were doing, and stands at attention, and gazes intently outside. Outside, people have likewise stopped in their tracks, and seem to be staring out onto the street, or perhaps at the Chinese flag flown at half mast across the street. Traffic has stopped. Entirely. This is on a busy street, I might add, a major street passing the East Gate of Renmin (People’s) University. But no cars, no bikes, and no pedestrians are moving, save for one guy who looked like he might’ve been a reporter snapping photos, and a single bike guy moving toward the end.

What on Earth?, I mouthed to Allison. We both stopped what we were doing too. It sort of dawned on both of us at the same time that 2:30pm was probably about the time that the earthquake hit Sichuan province exactly one week previous. This, we realized, was some sort of national moment of silence, lasting a total of three minutes. I had just read of three days of mourning declared by the PRC government, but I had no idea that this was going to be called. I imagine it must’ve been in local media, but I hadn’t heard or read any in the last 24 hours or so. I had only read in the western media something about the three days mourning, but hadn’t really read any more deeply than that before then.

I later read of 1.3 billion Chinese doing this across the nation, as a means of paying tribute to the dead. The English-language radio station DJ made a comment that made me uneasy about this whole thing, and perhaps unwittingly crystallized what may have been bothering me about it. “Just think,” she said, “1.3 billion Chinese, all thinking the exact same thing! Very inspiring.”

Not exactly the term I’d use. “Creepy” comes to mind. Still, I appreciate that this is cool in one way. This is the first time, I read, that a national day of mourning has been called for the death of people who weren’t politicians of some kind. The last time three days of mourning were declared was for the death of Deng Xiaopeng. I don’t believe anyone else was ever given that kind of send-off, apart from Mao, who, if anything, was probably given an even bigger national mourning. In some ways, perhaps the optimistic libertarian in me can read this as yet another step away from the official religion declared by Mao: state worship. I would’ve naturally preferred people just did their own thing to show their condolences to the people of Sichuan. After 9/11, there were impromptu gatherings, displays of the American flag, and the like, and these struck me as more genuine.

If people got something from this form of remembrance, far be it for me to take that from them. But it just looked, and felt, creepy. It reminded me of that scene in Fight Club where you see several groups across the city and the country chanting to themselves, in tandem: “His name was Robert Paulson.” I admit that I thought of the earthquake victims with a sense of sorrow at that moment. The loud noises created by the air raid sirens and car horns were supposed to symbolize a collective expression of wailing. But I mainly experienced a sense of creeped-out unease, and I don’t think that was the intention.

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