Appalachian Perspective: Bob White: Experiencing China's Earthquake

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Bob White, executive director of International Education and Development, talks about his experience while leading a group in Chengdu, China when the earthquake hit the region. He reflects on the collective good of the Chinese people, the unprecedented live reporting, the emergency management and the self-reflection of the students upon their return home.


Kenneth Peacock: On May the 12th of 2008, the world learned of a natural disaster of an unimaginable scale as a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit China's Sichuan province and killed more than 71000 people. The earthquake occurred as a group of eleven Appalachian students and faculty were traveling through China studying history, culture, and religion. Led by Bob White, executive director of Appalachian's Office of International Education and Development, the group was in a temple in Chengdu when the earthquake occurred. We'll talk with Bob White about this intriguing story coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Bob White, executive director of Appalachian's office of international education and development. Bob, thank you for joining us today, it's great to have you here. Let's get right to the story, you were there. Where were you at the time the earthquake occurred, how close to the center, what were you doing at that time?

Bob White: Our group had been China for about a week of a planned three weeks. We were in ChengDu. The primary goal of the day was two-fold, we went first to the so-called "poet's cottage" of Du Fu, a Tong era poet of some renown, he akin to their William Shakespeare. We spent a delightful morning talking about Chinese tradition and it's cultural inheritance, and to expand on that, we wanted to move from secular into spiritual and we had planned an afternoon in the largest Daoist Temple complex in Western China. It was founded in the Tong Dynasty by Master Wong, and we were in the complex. We'd been there an hour or so and visited several of the nearly 30 temple facilities, and as fate would have it at 2:38 on the 12th, most of the group, there were one or two of us that were outside, but most of us were inside the temple that was dedicated to Master Wong, the Chinese say that it's a 1000 year old building, it may only be 800 years old, but nonetheless, it's an astonishing edifice, and we were scattered through the temple, and I first heard a noise that sounded like every pigeon in the park being flushed at once, but I realized that's not what it was, and I thought my heaven's it's a massive wind storm, and just as I was realizing to myself that the building was in fact moving, Dr. Sean Arthur who was with me from our Philosophy and Religion department yelled out earthquake, and we all ran outside. The next two and a half minutes or so were astonishing moments in my life. The paving stones were moving without rhythm. I went down on one knee and leaned against my walking stick so I could remain upright, the birds were flying in crazy circles in the air, no one was shouting or screaming and the amazing thing to me was I have never in my life heard about the sound of an earthquake, and I've struggled for two and a half months to try to find the right way to describe that. It was a low rumble that was visceral, you could feel it in your stomach, you could feel it against the back of your belly, you could feel it in your spine, but it wasn't loud and piercing like a rock concert. It was all pervasive. As I sat there watching this 1000 year old building move literally sideways and back and forth and up and down, and not fall, which says something about the flexibility of traditional building styles, I had the funny thought that I should be true to my good colleague Fred Webb, a retired fellow here from ASU, we were in a Chinese language class 25 years ago and there was a loud thump in Sanford Hall and Fred commented, 2:38 on a Tuesday afternoon a 1.2 magnitude earthquake in Boone NC. I thought, I should be a good geologist, so I started counting, and I counted to 193 before it stopped, and it seemed like an eternity. We were able to see each other and most of the students were on one side, and I was glad of that. No one was in the building, I was sure of that, but I was really worried about a couple of our students who weren't in sight. I am trying to be totally reflective of this, Dr. Arthur and I are writing our reflections we hope to publish either an article or a small book about the events, and the more I write, the more I realize that I was in fact thinking about the impact of it as well as reacting to it and understanding I was in something I've never experienced in my life. When the shaking stopped we immediately tried to regain order, and we found the other two students on the other side of the building, thankfully, but that two and a half minutes seemed like an eternity. The amazing thing was that no one was hurt. We were immediately thankful that there was no one in our group that was hurt. We spent the next 4 days trying to get out of the city of Chen-Du because we were, in fact, in the way. The entire city was stretched to the limits in terms of its response, it's the capital of the Sichuan province in western China, and we were to learn just how dramatic that all had been. When the thing started we were, very ironically, in the temple to the Master of Daoism, who's edifice has been there for most of the last millennium, and we have talked repeatedly about how fortunate we were to be perhaps under his hand in some ways, to be in that very safe spot of sanctuary at the moment that thing happened. And of course, as the world has learned, the earthquake was one of the three biggest in the last century, the previous one in 1976 preceded the death of Mao Tse Tung, and of course that fits very neatly into Chinese history and tradition. Natural catastrophe of this type is generally seen as a precursor to some sort of bigger event, perhaps it will be the good effects of the Beijing Olympics, I certainly hope so. I had that thought and as we were to learn it had been a massive, massive, massive natural disaster. I have to say that that's as close to anything on that scale that I ever want to be close to. I have learned quite a lot through self-reflection and conversations with our students, who were brilliant, and my colleague, Dr. Arthur, who was a partner in leading this trip.

KP: Teach me something about what Dr. Webb had said, you counted from 1 to what number?

BW: I counted one thousand one, one thousand two up to one thousand 93, so this thing lasted at least two minutes maybe not quite three, i'm not sure if i was being as precise as some might be, but it seemed an eternity.

KP: The temple, you said, it stood. But was there damage?

BW: Yes, there was damage. There is a big concrete spine along the top, it's a traditional Chinese building style, the gable of the roof goes out and curves up into a swooping architectural style that we all recognize if you look into Chinese architecture, and that had a big split in it. But the wooden timber frame, all mortised in tenet, withstood the earthquake and did very well. In fact, it became a place of refuge in the wake of the quake, two students and i sat there for about 15 or 20 minutes, there were several older Chinese who got together, and they began a conversation that i caught much of, not it's entirety, but the conversation focused on what this meant for China's immediate future, and they were comparing it to the tong shan earthquake of '76 and another earthquake that had taken place in Sichuan back in 1933, the oldest of them was saying we need to pay attention to this, these are naturally occurring things and we should be prepared for them and not be surprised, and he was sort of preaching to his younger colleagues, and to us on the sidelines as we were listening, it was really quite fascinating.

KP: You said that you went outside because someone had shouted earthquake, what was it like in the streets, and were other buildings, were they as fortunate in terms of withstanding all of that?

BW: Well, Ken, the amazing thing was that we were extraordinarily lucky as we were to find out over the course of the next three or four days. We didn't know the impact immediately, and we didn't leave the temple complex for about two hours, we decided it would be best to stay until we heard word from someone, obviously something major had happened. Chen Du was lucky, there were a number of deaths and injuries from things that fell, but no buildings that collapsed in Chen Du itself, but we were about a mere 50 miles as the crow flies from the epicenter of the thing, and in fact, geologically speaking, to refer back to the thoughts that i had about fred as i responded to all of this, we were scheduled to be in Wu Dong Jian the very next day, which was the center of all of this, and there would have been quite a different story had that happened, and of course, one day, geologically speaking, is not even a bare whisper of time, if that thing had just waited 24 hours, we would have been right in the center of the quake. As it was, and i hope i can unfold the story here in the next little bit, the damage in Chen Du itself was not massive so that you could see it as having been in the center of something, but as we left the compound, it became clear that a major event had happened, and there were quite a number of injuries, in fact. What we did, in the wake of the quake, we looked around, and I, frankly, expected to be ushered right out and back to our hotel by authorities, but one can get a sense to the degree in which everyone was thrown off by this, there was no cell service, and we found out in short order that the land line system was working but sporadically, and we had no access to that, there are no public telephones, there was never a history of public pay-phones like we have here, but phone use was limited in China until the advent of the cell-phones. There was no internet and no cell-phones, so everyone was confused about what to do next, so we retreated to the place where all the Chinese went, there was a tea house in the temple grounds and we went and had tea, they had propane burners, and that was the only thing that was available, so we had several cups of tea, all of us being careful not to walk under eaves and listening to the remarks about being cautious and safe and staying away from buildings. The first sort of official thing that happened was that the monks closed all of the buildings, i don't know if they got a call from the government, we learned later that day that all of the buildings in the city had been closed, and the first official action that we saw were the monks going around, closing the doors, and scooting everybody that was still in any of the temple complex buildings out into the courtyard. So the tea house is an open courtyard, and we went there and we had tea for the next couple of hours. Over that time, there was a growing crescendo of noise outside of this maybe 50 or 75 acre complex in the middle of Chen Du, and siren noise grew increasingly, and the noise of people, not traffic, but people grew, and after about an hour and a half, we decided it was time to go and try to make our way back to our hotel, and when we left the compound, that's when we really got a sense of just how devastating this all was.

KP: But you never lost contact with the students, so you never worried about them, they were right there with you the whole time?

BW: No, we found each other within two or three minutes of this being over, our group was together, and the way the trip was constructed, that was the plan. Leading study abroad, as you know, is a wonderful privilege, to go to the place that you love and devote your academic career to, and then to take students into the center of that is just a great joy. We would hold class, we would walk about and let them examine the symbols and think about what Shawn and I had talked about in our classes with them, and then we would get together and we would reflect, and then we would do another class, and usually each place that we visited was punctuated by class, free time, class, free time, and we had just finished a conversation about a lot of the symbolic presentation we were seeing about Daoism, about Chinese cosmology and the way they perceive the great spiritual world, and we were very fortunate that we were so close together.

KP: Bob, you've been to China many times and done many international trips, but this one was different. What do you think our students might have learned being in China during this?

BW: Ken, the ironic thing is we had set our program up with Shawn as the expert on traditional cosmology, and me the commentator on recent history, of revolutionary history, but what we really wanted to show them was the "real China," and i say that against the context that you are very familiar with, you and I have collaborated for 20+ years on our good friends across the Pacific, and they have achieved nothing short of a modern miracle in terms of their development, the 10% growth per year for the last 20 years is a growth at a level that no one else in the world has ever sustained for that period, but i wanted to see past that, i wanted them to see the Chinese being Chinese and not the Chinese on a World Stage being, yes, Chinese, but world citizens in a different way, we had hoped to introduce the students to a "real China" if you will. Perhaps a grandiose desire in a 3-4 week summer study abroad program, but that was our goal, and ironically, the earthquake gave us the chance to make that happen. You know that the Chinese are as enamored of cell phones as we are and you will often see people with two holsters, one in each hand, doing business the modern way, just as fast as they can. Well, when the earthquake struck, cell service stopped. Internet was down. We had no access to land line, there was a land line in the facility, but the director was on it, and i don't know if there was a second one. So, everybody was thrown off "ladernity" if you will and brought back to face-to-face communications and interactions that so define any society. And I salute the students, they were brilliant by the way, everyone of them acted in a mature, responsible way against the frustration of losing this central element week of their trip, and they helped us to help ourselves get out of the way and move on to the next portion of the thing, so i think they saw China operating where goodness and benevolence and the well-being of all is really at the center, you know China was never a place where the individual was touted in ways as they are in the west, it was really more about the collective good opportunity and operation of society for everyone, and of course, there are great philosophical differences in those two approaches, but the beauty of China is that it did that in that particular way for two millennium, and watching a response like this, the national response to the earthquake opened that door for the students.

KP: Did you shorten your time in the Sichuan province?

BW: No, and in fact, it took us most of 4 or 5 days to get out of Sichuan. As I said a bit ago, we stayed in the temple complex for a couple of hours, and the saga after we left is really worth remarking on, we left the temple, and the minute we stepped out of the temple gates, it was clear that something had happened. There was no traffic on the streets, everybody was on the streets. Chen Du is a city of 8 or 9 million i believe, and everyone had been ordered out of the buildings by the government, so the streets were packed. It took our bus driver at a dead slow crawl 15 minutes just to get out of the parking lot, and then you couldn't negotiate the streets with any rapidity because bicycles were filling them. The occasional bus would cause not just a jam at the bus stops, but for 100 feet around the buses, people tried to get on public transportation to go home. We were maybe in normal traffic a 15 minute ride from our hotel, and it took us 2 hours to get back to the hotel. During that time, we passed through the center city square. I have only seen on video the large red guard mass movements during the cultural revolution when literally a million people would be in Tienneman's square, and I don't think the central city square in Chen Du was that full, but it was close. It was packed. I knew there had been a lot of injury when we passed a hospital and all of the gurneys, all of the beds, all of the stretchers were filled and every white uniformed and suited doctor and nurse and medical person was there and people were being carried in on the back's of friends, on stretchers, with bloodied turbans, and we saw the first of the bodies that we saw, and there were several hundred people killed in Chen Du by falling debris. We were extremely lucky to be where we were [during the earthquake]. We eventually made our way back to the hotel, we were not allowed to go in the hotel, but rather told to go into a big open space, so we joined the crowd in the center city square, which was only about 2 blocks away from the hotel, and took up seats there close to the big Mao statue (there's a big white Mao Tse-Tung statue with his hand held out,) and I got into a conversation with an older gentleman and I had to laugh, he said, well, cell phone's aren't working, the police don't seem to know what to do, the government's just ordered us to leave our buildings and homes, I think that Chairman Mao might step down off of his statue and wrap us up in his arms. He was being wistful and optimistic and hopeful. But we stayed there for about an hour, there were a couple of aftershocks, then we retreated back to our hotel. We were very lucky, they let us go in and gather our belongings, and then we got on the bus that we had engaged, and headed south and out of the city to a place where we found sanctuary for the night. Miracle #1 was surviving the earthquake without any harm. Miracle #2 really occurred that night. We found a hotel near the panda breeding reserve, which is south of town, and although they would rent us a hotel room, they wouldn't let us stay in it because of the government directive to stay outside, so we joined ten million people in an enforced camperie in Chen Du, everybody was preparing to sleep on the streets, and we did the same thing. We gathered up our bedding and chair pillows and, on covered walkways in an absolutely delightful garden, we made our beds for the night. So I camped out in China, something I had never done before, and our thought was we could be under the covered walkways, and a gentle rain had started to fall, and we were not in the direct rain like so many hundreds of thousands of people who only had tarps and umbrellas and that sort of thing. So the second miracle of the day was that we found a place to sleep.

KP: How long and in what way did you get confirmation of the earthquake?

BW: Well, the really interesting thing was when I was got in contact was the method I chose. I use 21st century technology, but we chose to send a text message not to Pat (my wife) or Meg, or Jesse, but to my youngest daughter who i knew would be checking her cell phone for a text message, I wasn't sure that my oldest daughter uses texting as much, so I sent a very brief text message to my youngest daughter that we were ok. The next afternoon, I was able to get on the internet for a little bit and send a longer message that some of it made it into the news networks around campus and locally.

KP: The news networks you mentioned sometimes we don't get the whole story here of what's happening in China. How was this? Did we get the whole story?

BW: Well, Ken, that's how we found out just how massive this was. What we observed and what the world observed in the wake of the earthquake was absolutely unprecedented. The people's Republic of China has not been noted for absolute openness of it's media and for all the reasons, right, wrong, and otherwise that historians and political scientists and communications experts and folks who do business would have it otherwise or not have it otherwise, the fact is that it is a closed society. Major events like this, we often don't hear about. Disagreements with the government, that sort of thing. This earthquake prompted something that as a student of modern China, as a student of propaganda in the means of education used particularly by the communists during the civil war and then during the establishment of new China, what the world saw is really unprecedented. How unprecedented? We quickly, like everybody else in China, became glued to the television screens whenever we were around one because they were showing live, unedited, 24 hour a day footage of the earthquake. You would see young reporters who were obviously from well accoutered television stations, they would walk up to four-star generals who were directing traffic, rescue operations, recovery operations, and start asking questions. Instead of putting them off, the four-star general would turn to them and start answering. The army and all of the relief organizations had been instructed by the government to be totally honest and open with the media, and what the world saw for the first two or three weeks, i'm not sure how long it remained this open, is really unprecedented. We saw a lot of things on Chinese television that would probably never be aired on American television, some of the more horrendous of the rescue scenes, and the pictures of the devastation and death, I don't think that a lot of that would remain unedited on American television. So the world saw what was going on. The other thing it allowed for us to see and allowed for us to try to deal with and weave into our study abroad trip was the nature of that unparalleled response and that window into China that it gave us. We spent several hours, like most of the Chinese watching events unfold and being both saddened and uplifted by moments of heroic rescue or survival. We joined all of China, in particular, all of the Sichuanese in trying to figure out what was going on and realizing just how fortunate we had been to be as far from the epicenter as we were.

KP: 71,000+ people were reported dead. How does a culture deal with that? What did you see? What did you feel? I can't imagine what that was like.

BW: You know, Ken, I was torn between wishing someone else was on this hot-seat but me, because we're never prepared to deal with calamity like that. The overwhelming human response to learning that a middle school with 7-800 children had just been snuffed-out, their lives had just been snuffed-out. The astonishing human care that was being lavished on everyone involved, you may remember professor Yong Deyo who was with us for about three years, I got a call on a cell phone that had been given to me by our travel vendor, I don't know how he found my number, he's in the Shen Tsi province, he called me, it was the middle of day three, I think, to express his concern, and urged me to be careful and cautious and call him if there was anything that he could do. The human outreach was stunning, by day two, people had set up collection boxes for relief on the sidewalks. The young man who was our local agent on the ground was a red cross member, and was already talking about leaving as soon as he managed to get us out of the city to go volunteer to help. There was a massive outpouring of human concern that was really touching, and it made my own concern and angst for the safety of my students seem small in comparison, and yet as crucial to me as everyone else, so those things all mixed up into an emotional and uplifting sense of what we can do when were pressed. The government was there to do everything it could, we saw one line of trucks that must have been ten miles long on the way with relief, and we saw these collection boxes form immediately. What we faced was the great difficulty of trying to get out of the way. I called the US consulate there and talked for about five minutes about our safety and the fellow said thank you. I said for what? He said, well, for one, for reporting in, but also for not asking us to do anything, we can't get our own people in and out. He said please touch base if anything horrific happens or if you need any immediate first aid, but otherwise they were as powerless as we were. And the great heroism of the young man who was our local logistics person, he called in his partner and another young woman and the three of them stayed with us for four days, i don't think they slept until they got us on a boat to Chong-Ching and out of harm's way. I had intended to approach you about joining me in writing a letter of appreciation to the Sichuan red cross and this young man and his friends, they were heroes. They all had their own families, they all had their own things to deal with. We never asked, but they stayed right with us until we bid them farewell and we got on a boat to go down the river to safety. Mr. Mao Fe, I need to say his name publicly and let him know we're thinking about him.

KP: Well, I really thank you for your leadership, and the fact that you said that our students actually got to see China pulling together, you and I both have seen the hearts of the people of China, and sometimes our governments have had their issues, but when you get to the people level, we're all good people, we care about each other, and you provided our students with that opportunity, and they'll never forget that.

BW: Neither will I. ASU has provided opportunities for me to be with students for a long time now, but this particular example will stick out.

KP: I'm glad you were there, I'm glad you're back safe, and I'm glad you were able to report it to us, so thank you, again, for being on the show, and thanks for all you do for Appalachian.

BW: My pleasure.