Finding unity in three minutes of silence

Following the earthquake in China, we were all connected – foreigners and locals alike.

Aly Song/Reuters
Solidarity: Residents of Pingtong, China, observed three minutes of silence on May 19 to honor those lost in an earthquake that rocked their town the week before.

My formal Chinese language study at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, was a productive, happy time. And then, the earthquake hit.

At first, the table jiggled. Then the building began to shake. Sounds of flower pots crashing, window frames rattling, and cabinet doors banging quickly filled my apartment's afternoon quiet.

Above my head, a tidal wave of clicking nails thundered across the kitchen's false metal ceiling panels. The building's rats were on the run. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Sichuan earthquake called them all away, and they haven't returned since.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, was left physically untouched by the May 12 earthquake. Emotionally, however, the city was at a stand-still. As news coverage of the magnitude 7.9 quake reached us, we turned our thoughts toward our northern neighbors who had not fared as well.

During the daytime, everyone watched 24-hour news coverage. Names of destroyed cities and towns flashed across our TV screens. The thousands of aftershocks were meticulously counted and reported on every channel.

In the evenings, the city's fearful residents moved outside, camping out in parks, on university campuses, or on sidewalks. We became a city of tents.

Schools and shops closed; recreational facilities shut their doors. But within a few days, the need to help overpowered the need to hide.

High school students in my neighborhood began a clothing and bedding drive for the survivors. I dug through my wardrobe, embarrassed by the number of shirts, pants, shorts, and shoes I had accumulated over the years.

It took three teenagers to help me carry the boxes to the pick-up center. Instead of chastising my extravagant wealth in clothes, they thanked me again and again for my kindness.

Volunteers poured forth to collect relief supplies and load them onto trucks, push for monetary donations, and take care of the injured brought in by the thousands to our provincial hospitals. Banners went up overnight: "A Strong-willed Many Become a City; Fight the earthquake, Save those in the Disaster!"

Such unity in a city that is usually wrapped up in its own private affairs was miraculous to behold.

A week later, the nation's three days of mourning were observed. On the first mourning day, a Monday, we were to have three minutes of silence at 2:28 p.m. to commemorate the time the earthquake struck.

This was voluntary. Many of my overseas classmates had no special plans to participate. But I wanted to. My biggest decision was where to go. What place in Chengdu would be the most meaningful for me as a foreigner in China?

I made my decision as I walked by the hundreds of student-owned tents spread out around the sports stadium. I knew that these Chinese young people would be gathering, and since we were all Sichuan University classmates together, I wanted to be a part of that community.

When I arrived at the paved area before the stadium, we still had 15 minutes until the appointed time. Many of us hung back, waiting under the shade of nearby trees.

In the stadium parking lot, a stationary tiled platform held two empty flagpoles with the third in the center displaying the Chinese flag at half-mast. This would be the focal point of our three minutes.

There was no need to organize us when the area filled with more participants. Everyone instinctively moved into neat, tidy rows. Some carried umbrellas to block the bright rays of the midafternoon sun.

Usually on a Chinese campus, a foreigner draws some attention. Those who speak English will shyly approach for a hoped-for chat. A few will look and whisper, poking one another to go talk to the person from overseas.

But this time, I had become a part of China. We all knew the solemnity of this occasion. We were all connected. There was no desire to single out one of us as being any different from the other.

In the distance, an emergency siren started its three-minute wail. Cars parked nearby joined in with a steady, constant blaring of their horns.

The students bowed their heads. No one moved. No one spoke. We just stood, thinking of those who had lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, and their entire communities in a single moment.

As the three minutes came to a close, the sirens faded. Car horns ceased blaring. Some students filed forward, taking turns at placing their paper carnations or fresh flowers at the foot of the Chinese flag.

With the ceremony over, I made my way home. The campus walkways provided a pleasantly shady journey under arched trees and along quiet roads, giving me some time for thoughtful reflection.

I know that the heaviness still felt by all of us can't be wiped away with a few minutes of national silence. Yet, walking back through the campus on that Monday, I couldn't help but feel that maybe, just maybe, our shared moments together had placed us on a quicker path to healing.

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