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Babbling Brooks

David Brooks is in China, where he’s gotten the uncomfortable sense that they just don’t feel things like we do*

Three months ago, an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province, killing nearly 70,000 people. Xian Tianquan was at home with his wife in the village of Pengshua at the time. They made a dash to get outside. Xian’s wife was just ahead of him, crossing the threshold of their house when the frame collapsed. She was killed instantly.

This week, he sat on the spot of her death, telling the story with a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful air. A small group of villagers was hanging around, and the interview, outside under a tarp, was a communal affair. The villagers joked with each other and smiled frequently in a manner I found hard to fathom as they described the horrible events from May.

I asked if people in the village have suffered any psychological aftershocks from the trauma. Another villager, Tan Fubian, piped up and said that they just try not to think about it…

Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

He’s also puzzled that a couple who lost their only, grown, son just don’t seem to be all that upset about it

“The government wants us to look on the positive side,” he said.

There were no pictures of his dead son around, but from under his bed he pulled a photo album that had been at his mother-in-law’s at the time of the quake. I thought he would betray some emotion as he passed around photos of his handsome, scholarly looking boy. There was nothing. He kept speaking in that pragmatic tone, just as Xian had done. Qi’s wife added that she was very satisfied with all that had been done for them.

These were weird, unnerving interviews, and I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in the minds of people who have suffered such blows and remained so optimistic.

Yeah, that’s some baffling shit there, Dave. Luckily I’m here for you. Here’s some nice comprehensible trauma


Sure do look like parents with emotions, don’t they?

Wufu is a town in mourning. Giant wreaths and white flowers, the Chinese symbol for remembrance, line the main street and point the way to one of the most tragic and disturbing scenes in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Sichuan Province almost two weeks ago.

Nearly all of the 128 who died in this small town outside Mianzhu were children, mostly aged between 10 and 13, when the Fuxin 2 Junior School collapsed – leaving parents childless and inconsolable.

But if grief is the dominant emotion in Wufu, then anger runs it a close second. As you walk through this rural community, it is impossible not to be struck by the profusion of home-made banners strung across streets and hanging from walls. They point to a story of corruption and incompetence that the bereaved believe did more to kill their children than any natural disaster.

One reads: "Our children are not dead directly due to the earthquake, but because of a tofu building."

The Fuxin 2 school was reduced to rubble in minutes, burying the children, while the buildings around it stood firm. It is that telling fact which so enrages the parents of the dead and has driven these formerly quiet citizens to protest at the remains of the school, every day.

Multiply that anger by 6,898 – the total number of school buildings that collapsed across the earthquake zone on May 12 – and it is possible to get the measure of the new phenomenon facing the Chinese authorities: a fury shared by tens of thousands of bereaved parents, some of whom are now planning larger-scale protests.

A banner bearing the names of the dead, and written in the blood of their parents, leads to a shrine on the wreckage of the school. The children’s school bags are piled in front of an altar displaying their photographs. The parents would like China’s president Hu Jintao, or the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to visit. They have heard nothing from the local authorities.

Kinda odd you didn’t run into any of them, Dave.  Oh, sorry, wait. No it isn’t

A school employee in Sichuan Province has been ordered to a labor camp for a year for taking photographs of schools that collapsed in the powerful May 12 earthquake and posting them on the Internet, a human rights group reported Wednesday.

The worker, Liu Shaokun, 54, was detained at Guanghan Middle School on June 25, according to the group, Human Rights in China, which is based in New York. Family members informed the group that Mr. Liu had posted the photographs online; that has not been independently verified.

The order against Mr. Liu, for “re-education through labor,” is an extrajudicial punishment that does not require a trial.

…local government officials and law enforcement officers have been trying to quell demonstrations, banning news coverage, blocking parents’ protests and offering parents payments and pensions in exchange for their silence.

No, not odd at all

The Chinese government, under international criticism that freedom of speech would be limited during the Games, set up three designated protest zones around the capital. The people, apparently, have nothing to complain about — the parks are largely deserted.

The spots are difficult to reach and far from Olympic sites. There’s also a long list of regulations which protesters must follow to use the sites, including registering with the Beijing Public Security Bureau. Even what will be written on their placards is noted in advance.

The activists had hoped the international media would find them, but officials and logistics and language have so far conspired to keep their stories far outside the Olympic experience. Not that the women’s day patrol down this lane thinks they should be heard.

"These are domestic affairs," 57-year-old En Shi Ju said. "We can take care of our own domestic affairs."

The lady dragons protecting the codes of this district say there are plenty of ways to be heard, and if any of them had a complaint — which they say they don’t because the government provides whatever they need — then it would be dealt with fairly.

The women slowly warm to us as we show an interest in their point of view.

"I don’t feel my human rights have been limited," says a woman in a large floppy hat.

"I have 100% liberty to express myself."

As she says this, there’s a blur to my right side.

A young man in red shorts and black dress shoes comes from nowhere, and is trying to put a small folded piece of paper in the hand holding my pen.

I reach out, and grab air.

The older women are moving like bullets from a gun. They slap the man’s hand down, and pounce.

"What are you doing?" they demand, as they chase after him.

Afraid — his chance gone — the terrified man turns and bolts down a nearby alley.

The children of the district watch him — and learn.

So, you missed stuff. It’s understandable. You can’t see everything when you’re doing a toe touch.

You managed to come to some conclusions, though, didn’t you, based on the limited information you did manage to get.

These were weird, unnerving interviews, and I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in the minds of people who have suffered such blows and remained so optimistic. All I can imagine is that the history of this province has given these people a stripped-down, pragmatic mentality: Move on or go crazy. Don’t dwell. Look to the positive. Fix what needs fixing. Work together.

I don’t know if it’s emotionally sustainable or even healthy, but it raises at least one interesting question. When you compare these people to the emotional Sturm und Drang over lesser things on reality TV, you do wonder if we Americans are a nation of whiners.

You know, Dave, it takes a special kind of journalist to fly around the world to force a group of bereaved survivors trapped in the ruins of their lives in a corrupt totalitarian prison state to put on a show for you so you can make your set speech about sucking it up on a pile of seventy thousand bodies.

I think, though, that it actually takes you personally to top it off with an attaboy for Phil Gramm.

You don’t feel things like us, do you, dear.

*fyi, Those People being emotionally dysfunctional was also his explanation for the Iraqis not throwing flowers at us.

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Middle-aged (thank god); married (oddly enough); native New Yorker; one (thoroughly magnificent, thanks) child, She Who Must Be Obeyed, aka HM (Her Majesty). But a mere lowly end-user by profession, and a former [pretty much everything, at least in somewhat limited first-world terms].

Extravagant (mostly organic) cook, slapdash (completely organic) gardener, brain space originally assigned to names and faces piled up with the overflow from the desperately overcrowded Old Movie and Broadway Trivia section, garage space which was originally assigned to a car piled up with boxes of books.

Dreadful housekeeper, indifferent dresser, takeout menu ninja and the proud owner of a major percentage of the partially finished crafts projects on the east coast of the continental United States.

The handsome gentleman in the picture is Hoa Hakananai'a. He joined the collection of the British Museum in 1868. His name, which is thought to mean "stolen or hidden friend," was given to him by his previous owners when he was collected.