I haven't mentioned the earthquake on this blog since it happened, but I'm sure it goes without saying that everyone in Zhangye has been concerned about it and the awful devastation it has caused. Though a few cities in Gansu province did see some damage and even some casualties, we actually didn't feel it here and I've been following it only through news reports.
At the beginning of last week, there were three national days of mourning for the earthquake victims, including a three-minute moment of silence on Monday afternoon. All of the foreign teachers were summoned to take part in a gathering of students and faculty in front of the library during this time. It was both a solemn and slightly surreal experience. It was like any other moment of silence in that the crowd itself did not speak and stood with heads respectfully bowed. However, it was the loudest moment of silence I expect to ever witness--all across the country, horns blared in the cities, in the taxis, on the ships, and on the trains. CCTV broadcast footage from Beijing during those minutes, and our school had set up a TV and enormous speakers in front of library for the event. Two students simply held microphones up to the TV, meaning that while sirens went off in Zhangye, sirens in Beijing being broadcast on the television were amplified into our ears in an odd and highly distorted sound collage. I couldn't quite get my head around it, and from what I've been told it was simply a Chinese way of honoring and remembering the victims of the disaster. One could write an interesting paper just on the meaning and uses of noise in Chinese and Western culture. This was also the first time a national moment of grief was organized in China for anything other than the death of the country's leader, and in general the government response to the earthquake is praiseworthy.
The second incident that stands out in my mind is a recent donation drive to help with the earthquake relief effort. I wasn't on campus at the time, but the other foreign teachers were called by Miss Mao from the Foreign Affairs Office on short notice and told to meet at her office.
Once there, everyone was told they were to donate money to help the earthquake victims, and asked to write down the exact amount they were donating a pre-prepared list with all of our names on it. Once this was done, they were led outside where a donation rally was held in which Communist Party leaders and the bewildered foreigners placed their donations one-by-one into a box, to the cheers of a crowd of students. As each person approached the box, they proudly held up a sign with the amount of their donation, which was also displayed on an electronic screen. The foreign teachers had to oblige, but each hid their money and paper in their fist as they donated. One teacher had actually had to borrow money to donate, because he wasn't told it was a donation at all and didn't bring his wallet. They also were not told who was handling the donation (the Communist Party), or really much of anything about it. The event was filmed, and later shown on the local news, similar to other donation drives we have seen on television. Students have also been asked to donate blood and money in high-pressure situations. Just when you think you're no longer surprised by the differences between China's collectivism and the West's individualism, something comes along to remind you just how differently things are done here.
(There is also a good post about donating on Sinosplice)