May 12 Notes: Life After the Earthquake

Mianzhu County was one of the hardest hit areas by the May 12 Sichuan earthquake with a total of 11,117 casualties, 90% of all housing destroyed, and estimated economic losses of 142.3 billion yuan. With assistance from Jiangsu Province, reconstruction in Mianzhu was divided into nine categories and 108 individual projects to the tune of 12.4 billion yuan. I remember that year the whole city was filled with the rich smell of alcohol from the Jiannanchun Distillery ((Editor’s Note: Each county in the earthquake zone was paired with a wealthy coastal province which provided reconstruction assistance.)). As for the reconstruction, with Jiangsu’s assistance, Mianzhu was rebuilt in less than three years and the city was changed beyond all recognition. Compared with other hard-hit areas, it was completely rebuilt in a newer, more sophisticated architectural style.

In this emotionally fraught place, the story I want to talk about most is reuniting with old friends. Some of them are volunteers, some of them are stars thanks to the post-disaster media attention, and some of them are ordinary local citizens. By returning to their stories, we might be able to see the impact and change the earthquake wrought on their lives.

“Inseparable, reluctant” Volunteers

The very first volunteers we see are friends, Lao Gao (老高) and Li Jie (李杰).

Lao Gao is from Shenzhen; Li Jie is from Henan. In the year of the earthquake, Lao Gao had just quit his job as a cell phone customer service representative; Li Jie had just been discharged from the army. Because of the earthquake, because of fate, they both came to Zundao. Initially, they volunteered at a “Happy Holidays” event for teachers in Zundao. Prior to August 1, 2008 – before Zundao’s teachers and students moved into temporary schoolrooms – a number of NGOs, including the Shenzhen Mountaineering Association (深圳登山协会), China Vanke Civil Society Project Office (万科公民社会项目办公室), Chengdu 512 Voluntary Relief Center (成都5.12民间救助中心), and the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (友成企业家扶贫基金会), jointly established the “Zundao Volunteer Coordination Office” (遵道志愿者协调办公室). Their first event was the “Happy Holidays” program which established 12 educational centers in 10 villages in Zundao. The objective was to provide a safe and happy learning environment for the children as well as give peace of mind to their working parents. The “Happy Holidays” program attracted over four hundred domestic and international volunteers to Zundao. After the program ended, they volunteered in a livelihood reconstruction program raising rabbits, and later on in Mianzhu’s New Year traditional painting program.

These days, Lao Gao and Li Jie can be found in a small teashop they started together on the second floor of a residential street in Mianzhu City called “Lai Bar”. The shop has been open for a year, but it has been a painstaking effort to keep it going; sometimes they cannot even raise the 600 yuan needed for rent. “If it is so difficult, why do you keep on going?” I asked Lao Gao. Lao Gao replied, “I couldn’t do this without my children.” Already called “Great Uncle” by a number of children, the young man from Shenzhen had left about four or five years ago looking for work at charitable foundations. Lao Gao spent less than a year away, discovering the majority of charity organizations were more interested in fundraising than in areas that interested him. So in the fall of 2011, he returned to Zundao. Lao Gao depended on the tea shop to earn a living, so that he could keep an eye on the children of Zundao. This Shenzhen young man was an ideal big brother to kids, just like the German volunteer Eckart Loewe who was seen on Chai Jing’s “One on One” program. While he has stayed the same, his kids have grown up. In 2008, many of his kids were still young students and teenagers. Five long years later, the children have grown up and entered society.

Lao Gao’s partner, Li Jie, is in a similar situation. The teashop has been unable to make ends meet for a few months, leading Li to consider whether it is worth keeping open. Li Jie had also previously left Zundao, spending a year in Beijing as a security guard. Through a curious coincidence he returned, albeit reluctantly. In fact, many volunteers who once struggled and worked here have “reluctant” feelings. Especially in the initial stage of the earthquake relief, when a small office was receiving a continuous flow of millions of yuan worth of supplies and donations every month providing warmth for the victims. They found happiness in helping others, from designing programs to running events. Their self-worth was tied up in their ability to help. The status of a volunteer at that time, with that aura, was really captivating, to the point where some people would ignore their own hunger and eat less so that others could be fed. In Zundao, there was one case we frequently talked about and were unable to understand. On our volunteer team there was a man who had been written about in the Deyang Daily Newspaper. His house in Xi’an had burned down along with 50,000 yuan in cash. His family was not wealthy and he was the only son, and yet the matter had not even been fully settled when he decided to return to Zundao to continue volunteering.

When I rudely asked, “Do you think that volunteering is a drug?” Lao Gao and Li Jie both denied it. They responded that they “want their own favorite things, to go their own way”. They wished that their chosen path would be enough to keep them adequately provided for, to realize their ideals, and to bring happiness to others as well as themselves. Like Lao Gao and Li Jie, a few volunteers have insisted on staying up until now after the Sichuan Earthquake, but many people who did volunteer found it extremely difficult to get their life back on track afterwards. In my personal analysis, a collective heroism pervades the volunteer community where their romanticism and idealism are fully realized. Returning to the daily grind of the real world is a great shock, making it difficult to go back.

She’s Even More Alone After the Quake

At Lai Bar, I met with another friend that I was very pleased to see – Xiao Qi (小琪). She was my first friend during my year in Zundao. We became close when I taught her English while she taught me embroidery. Xiao Qi became a star during the earthquake aftermath when the news media turned her method for coping into the ideal of self-reliance after a tragedy. So far, every year on the eve of the earthquake’s anniversary, she still receives five or six media interviews by phone; in 2009 she was even invited to a Japanese university to share her story.

The earthquake brought dramatic changes to Xiao Qi’s life. She is from Penghua Village in Zundao and lost her grandmother in the earthquake. Xiao Qi began to hand embroider things as a way to lessen her grief and calm her mood. Afterwards, she proposed that the Volunteer Office set up a women’s embroidery workshop in the village, as a possible way to help the village’s young women move on faster from their psychological trauma. Unexpectedly, the very next day she was turned into a “post-quake self-help” hero through China’s social media. Since then, an unknown woman with a passion for embroidery has become Penghua Village’s biggest celebrity. This celebrity effect has caused several of her Mianzhu New Year’s embroidered pictures to sell for 3,000-5,000 yuan and indirectly facilitated an aid program in Changzhou to invest nearly 10 million yuan in a teaching studio in Penghua Village.

When I saw her, Xiao Qi was holding an adorable two-year-old baby girl. After the earthquake, she got married and became a mother. I had not expected so much excitement from our reunion and was unable to hide my unfamiliarity. Her first words to me were in the Sichuan dialect, “Oh, you look so different!” Xiao Qi had experienced many big changes over the past few years, especially once she had gotten married. She was without a close friend to talk to. Once we were extremely close friends, but over the years I had not given the young married woman the least bit of thought. Xiao Qi said, “The year I got married, I called you countless times but without any success. How come you never called back?” When she asked me this question, I became filled with remorse. I think that the past is the past. Along with our different life experiences, friends are sometimes inadvertently forgotten. I asked her with some guilt how her life had gone since then. Xiao Qi said that she was living alone with her daughter. Like many other rural families, she and her child were left at home by her husband. Her in-laws live in Xinjiang Province and her husband went to Hainan for work, and she was only reunited with her distant family during the Spring Festival.

As for the media, this young mother, who is carrying her child around most of the time, no longer welcomes the attention. As for her former role as a volunteer, she is beginning to have doubts. She feels that outsiders who come to Zundao to help are not really motivated, the majority of them only putting in a minimal effort. When the reconstruction effort in Zundao came to an end, all of the volunteers and support staff left, leaving the young people of Zundao in a lurch. This meant that the fresh and vibrant community reverted back into an old-fashioned, boring, and conservative rural society. As a result of her experience with the earthquake relief, meeting so many people and working with the girls at the embroidery workshop, she has left behind her big dreams inspired by her volunteer friends from around the world, and the conservative rural community. After her horizons were broadened, she could neither move on nor go back to the traditional agricultural society she had been born and raised in. Xiao Qi found herself lonelier after the earthquake.

From Volunteer to Microfinance Celebrity

Li Jiaying (李加英) and I hit it off the first time we met. Her story is the best reminder that even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

Jiaying was originally a clothing factory worker, but when the factory was destroyed in the earthquake she was laid off. Naturally optimistic, she immediately signed up as a volunteer at Zundao’s “Happy Holidays” at Qin Jia Kan School (秦家坎教学点). All that glitters is gold: her enthusiasm, earnestness, and experience allowed her to become a star among the volunteers. Six months of working as a full-time volunteer turned out to be a life-changing experience for the better. In December of 2008, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s (CFPA, 中国扶贫基金会) Microfinance division was recruiting program officers. Jiaying only had a high school diploma and her volunteering experience, but her enthusiasm and sincerity won over the hiring team and she became the CFPA’s number one loan officer recruit. The facts have proven that the recruiter had a good eye for talent. In 2009, during the height of rural reconstruction, Li Jiaying had the best microfinance record in the entire country with only a year of experience. She was invited to Beijing to receive an award from the father of microfinance and founder of Grameen Bank (孟加拉乡村银行), Muhammad Yunus.

When I saw Jiaying, she had already risen to a managerial position. But this manager was still full of her old enthusiasm.

Jiaying invited me to go and see some of the newly rebuilt homes. Her hometown of Qinjiakan did not appear to be as lucky as Penghua Village. Penghua’s residents hardly had to pay any money before being the first to move into newly built homes; she received only 20,000 yuan in reconstruction subsidies. When Penghua’s residents were already living in their new homes, construction on her home hadn’t even started yet. A 120 square meter home required nearly 70,000-80,000 yuan, and 120,000 yuan in total to renovate and furnish it. This is an astronomically high number for a family of three with only one adult working. When Mr. Zhou, a business man who came to pay a visit and heard about her situation, he offered to give her 100,000 yuan to build her house. She replied, “Thank you. I believe I can build the house on my own.”

Jiaying was lucky enough to be employed as a loan officer for CFPA when 2008 ended and she treasured this hard-won opportunity. For a middle-aged woman with only a high school diploma, this job was actually a massive challenge. When she started, she was computer illiterate and did not even know how to type in pinyin. She rode on a motorcycle from house to house during the day, handing out promotional pamphlets and her business card, and studied how to use EXCEL spreadsheets at night, busy until the early hours of the morning before she got up to start a new day. There is no rest for the weary; this computer illiterate peasant woman had the number one performance in Mianzhu County after one business quarter. After a year, she had made 4.8 million yuan in loans on her own, making her CFPA’s number one salesperson nationwide. In 2010 she achieved another “first” by having the most “effective clients”.

Jiaying has said that so many of her “firsts” are thanks to the six months she spent as a volunteer at the Zundao Volunteer Coordination Office. During those six months, she traveled to each of Zundao’s ten villages and searched for their most disadvantaged and marginalized citizens, so she knew the towns inside and out. When she started providing information about microfinance loans to villages in January of 2009, each village leader thought she was still affiliated with the Volunteer Coordination Office. Her microfinance pamphlets were emblazoned with “Zundao Volunteer”, and when people needed money to rebuild, they thought of their old friend Jiaying.

“You’ve already paid off your loans?” I asked? “I paid them off ahead of schedule,” she told me proudly. Her family was once 100,000 yuan in debt; now they have a savings account, a small car, and a comparatively well-off standard of living. Jiaying managed to not only improve her career, but change her household into a happier one. Her alcoholic husband cleaned up his act and started work driving a bus between Zundao and Mianzhu; her daughter was admitted into the best high school in Mianzhu and has one of the highest grades in her class. Jia Ying’s fifteen-year-old daughter proudly calls her mother a “hero”.

Today, the reconstruction seems to be drawing to an end and the money-lending business seems to be on an inevitable downturn, but Jiaying appears to be busier than ever. There are still new challenges awaiting her, as various branches of the finance industry are falling over themselves to have this energetic and passionate loan officer to come and teach them her secret to success. She said she tells her colleagues “People who help themselves are aided by other people; people who help others are aided by heaven.”



In Brief

Volunteer Tan Siying returns to Mianzhu county to visit some of the people she worked with in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake relief effort.
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