One winter night, when I was lying awake and counting sheep, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the good old days when I could slumber like lumber. Not a single strand of qualm or worry could stop me from dropping asleep the minute my head touched the pillow. I was such a steadfast sleeper when I was a child. Even an earthquake couldn’t wake me up.
The earthquake in question was 7.6 in magnitude; it happened at 3:42 am on July 28, 1976, in Tangshan, China. That early morning, the whole northeastern part of China was shaken. Even Mongolia and Korea felt it. At the time, I was living with my grandmother in a two-bedroom unit in a five-story government housing complex in Beijing, about 100 miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake. Many years later, I encountered a diagram showing the severity of the Great Tangshan Earthquake in a book by the California Institute of Technology. On the diagram, the epicenter was colored dark red. Drawing away from it, dark red morphs to red, then orange, then sandy, and finally yellow. The colored sections together represent about 3,650 square miles of the region stricken by the earthquake, and I was a teeny tiny speck of dust stranded where sandy met yellow.
The night before the earthquake, I had a fight with my grandmother. I went out to play with my friends; she was mad at me for not informing her of my whereabouts. This sort of fight almost happened every day, but that night, my grandmother’s anger went a little bit overboard. Now thinking back, I realize her heightened anxiety might have something to do with the looming earthquake. My grandmother was an illiterate, down-to-earth woman. My later experience told me this kind of woman was more acceptive of signals from nature, just as fish, birds, reptiles, and insects exhibit strange behavior before a natural disaster. But how could a self-centered brat know this when she was only nine? Another thing about us in the 70s: we were poor and could barely afford electricity. Our home fell in the dark around 7 pm in summer, when I had to go out to use faint twilight. After the last rays of the setting sun, the streetlamps came on and would last till the next dawn. When my grandmother tried to guilt me with her worries, I responded with a nonchalant air: “I could have played longer had I not worried about your worrying about me.” No sooner had I finished the sentence than a black object flew my way. Coming back from a bright and cheerful outside put me at a disadvantage to my grandmother, who had been waiting for me in the dark. Totally unexpectedly, my head was hit by her shoe.
I cried out. I protested loudly. She turned her back to me. That was also how things would play out back then. The parents or caregivers would feel helpless after administering corporal punishment; they’d exhausted their educational options. I cried my heart out but was met with total silence and darkness. What could I have done but cry myself into sleep? Nothing really. And that was exactly my next move.
On an average day, I would forget about my grievance the next morning and carry on with my happy childhood. But in the middle of my sleep, I felt my bed rocking. The memory of the injustice and persecution came back. My grandmother again. My bed rocked harder and harder. Had she summoned an angry animal to come and eat me? A lion? A tiger? Only when the creature opened its bloody mouth did it find my bed too big for it. Aha! It bit my bed between its teeth and shook it violently. “Cool,” I smirked, “try harder.” It indeed amped up its strength, lurching one way and the other. It must be really angry because the air was filled with its inhuman roars, coupled with the shattering of glasses, the clanking of metal stuff, the banging of wooden stuff, and the shrieking of curtain rings on the rods. “Oh, my,” I sighed, a bit terrified, a bit curious. I had a half-heart to take a peek at the beast, but my eyes were sealed with lead. And then, suddenly, my bed stood still. All these noises stopped. I won.
When I fully woke up, I was already standing on the street. My grandmother had somehow jammed me into my clothes and dragged me out. Having planted me on the lukewarm asphalt, she turned to her acquaintances for information. I was left there, surrounded by adults, like a sapling caught between tall trees' shadows. All the residents in our neighborhood worked in the same factory; the number, according to my rough estimate, was no less than a thousand. Now all the living and breathing people had poured out. The street looked very strange to me, for during the night, the empty street had used to be children’s heaven, and now our privacy was invaded by the adults. Plus, the earthquake had destroyed the power grid, and the city had been blacked out. I’d never played on a street like that, black but full of commotion and sounds. The silhouettes were constantly in motion as if floating islands—people gathered in clumps and exchanged information; then, they moved to other clumps to trade for more. A man scratched a match to light a cigarette. The cigarette was passed from one man to another to light more cigarettes. An aftershock hit. Everyone froze in their tracks. The ground shook for a few seconds and then stood still. A woman cursed the men smoking. More women chimed in angrily as if cigarettes brought bad omens. Men silently dropped the cigarettes on the ground and stamped them out, but when they thought no one was noticing them, they picked up the crushed cigarettes from the ground and put them in their pockets.
I slipped through the crowd like a fish. I was looking for my grandmother, or my friends, whoever showed up the first. From eavesdropping on the adults' conversation, I caught a phrase half familiar, half strange: earthquake. So, this is how an earthquake feels! My eyes grew customed to the dark situation; exhausted adults sat down; the day began to break. My little friends revealed themselves from the forest of bodies, and our gang reunited, forming our own island. Everyone competed to tell sensational stories. Shamefully, I recalled how I had imagined that a wild animal was attacking me. To show that I was a sensible person, I inserted the scientific term whenever there was a pause in my friends’ narration. “It was an earthquake…Yup, that’s called an earthquake…Yeah, an earthquake does that to you! … Exactly, an earthquake.” By the day fully broke, whenever I said “earthquake,” someone rolled their eyes.
Everyone agreed that the shaking and swaying, the terror that drove us to the open, was caused by an earthquake, but none could fully understand the scope of it. Exchanging information exclusively within our neighborhood had its limits; there was no effective communication other than word of mouth. The sun came out, shining overhead, but we still felt like we were loitering in the dark. The aftershock was frequent, and most people dared not go back inside. We camped in the park across the street. Some daredevils volunteered to get food for us. We looked on with heavy hearts when they dived into the black, gaping entrance. Thankfully, they reappeared victoriously. The sun beat down on their sweaty faces; blue veins on their temples were throbbing. They were scared, but they acted coolly, dispensing food and receiving thanks. By nightfall, the residents of our building unanimously decided to camp in the park indefinitely. Men rode in tricycles to their factories and took back steel rods and canvas. Women built stoves with bricks and lit fires with tree branches. Within 24 hours of the main shock, professional-looking tents had been erected from the ground in front of our eyes.
When we finally heard an official account from the radio, it was three days later. The Great Tangshan Earthquake wiped out 80% of the buildings in Tangshan and killed more than 200,000 people. The number meant very little to me; I had only learned to count to a thousand at school. But the ripple effect impacted us one way or the other. One of the residents in our building had a sister in Tangshan. Seven days after the earthquake, she got word that her sister was sent to a hospital in Beijing, but she didn't know which one. She showed us a black-and-white photo of her sister, a young woman of about twenty-five, wearing a dress with a floral print. She asked if we could look around in the nearby hospitals.
Of course, we could. Hide-and-seek was our favorite game. There were three hospitals within walking distance: the Workers' Hospital, the Women's Hospital, and the Children's Hospital. We decided to start at the Children's Hospital. We didn’t make this decision based on the fact that we were familiar with its layout but also because we knew that it admitted adult patients from Tangshan. My friend Yang had sinusitis and needed acupuncture twice a week at the Children’s Hospital. He had been turned away by the receptionist when he went there for his most recent appointment. “Sinusitis could wait,” she told him. “All the doctors are helping with patients from Tangshan.” He took a peek at the wards on his way out and saw patients’ feet stuck out of the small beds, dangling haphazardly. “Definitely adults,” Yang stressed “adults” as proudly as the other day when I dispensed the knowledge of “earthquake.”
Toward the Children's Hospital, we marched. Surprisingly, we weren’t the only search party. Almost around every corner, we would bump into another group of kids, which aroused my suspicion. I had felt we were unique and valued since we accepted this assignment. But now, my bubble was on the verge of bursting, looking at all the idling kids swarming the narrow corridors. Before I could figure it out, turf wars had already broken out. Someone got hurt and was treated on the spot. Soon everyone below five feet became persona non grata in the very Children’s Hospital of ours. Everywhere we went, we were shooed away by doctors, nurses, and cleaning ladies.
Crestfallen, we dispersed. When I found myself alone, gravitating toward the basement, I was scared and excited at the same time. My heart fluttered with the prospect of bringing back an exclusive report; I descended gingerly, with all my senses heightened. The staircase was dark. I could only see the nearest steps without knowing how far down they could go. Soon, I couldn't even see my own feet. I tentatively stretched out one foot, feeling the hollowness below and attempting downward until it touched the lower step. When that foot could squarely support my whole weight, I moved another from behind and stretched it out again. Using my feet alternatively, I dove deeper and deeper.
Starting from a certain depth, I smelt something burning. Every Chinese New Year, my grandmother would buy a huge chunk of pork or lamb with skin on from the farmer’s market. She would skewer the meat on an iron stick and roast it on the stove before scraping the stubble off the skin with a knife. She usually patted the smooth skin, feeling it satisfactorily, before throwing the meat into the stew pot. In the 1970s, China operated on a system called a planned economy. The farmer's market didn't fit in this planned economy; it was basically illegal. Only once a year, the authorities would turn a blind eye, allowing farmers to sell their produce at street corners. The smell in the basement conjured up pleasant memories of a feast. I paused and inhaled deeply, trying to lengthen my pleasure. In the process of drawing my breath, I detected more layers from underneath the burnt smell: rotten flesh, disinfectant, piss… The deeper I went, the more unpleasant and pungent smell surfaced. Something was wrong. I paused, not sure if I should continue.
A switch was flicked on, and fluorescent lights flooded the underground space. It turned out that I was only two steps away from the bottom of the stairs, which led to a narrow corridor filled with bodies lying on the ground, one next to the other. Some had mattresses underneath; some lay on bare cement. None of them wore complete clothes. They were burn patients, not burnt enough to threaten their lives, so they were left unattended. Their clothes were cut open to expose the charred skin, which was a horrible palette: different shades of red, purple, brown, blue, and black. They had no movement, frozen at all sorts of grotesque postures, but the moment the lights turned on, different sounds burst out: groans, moans, sighs, cries, interspersed with eligible words like “doctor, nurse, hurt, help me.” The nurse was standing at the other end of the corridor, incredibly indifferent to the patients. When her gaze flitted across the long, narrow passageway and landed on me, her passion flared. She shouted at me, “You! Get out of here!” That’s exactly what I wanted to do, but somehow, I couldn’t. The nurse started in my direction, tiptoeing, avoiding stepping on patients. I was anxious to leave, but at the same time, I was transfixed. It felt like the night of the earthquake when the whole world was rattling, and I froze in my crust of dreams.
Suddenly, an arm shot from the ground and pulled the nurse’s leg, who stumbled, giving me time to concentrate. Tracing the arm, I saw a figure wearing a dress. The dress was almost intact; the pattern on her dress looked strangely familiar. The nurse had broken free from the figure and was charging at me like a dark cyclone. The figure in the floral dress twisted her body and turned her face toward my direction. Instantly, I understood why her dress wasn't cut open. Her face was burnt. It was such an inhuman, disfigured face; red, purple, brown, blue, and black were lushly splashed on it. My jaw dropped. My eyes popped. I screamed. My mobility suddenly came back. I turned around, climbed, and crawled back up. Seeing that I was fleeing, the nurse stopped chasing me. The lights were turned off. For a moment, I felt like the stairs beneath me had disappeared, and I was sinking into the abyss. But this didn’t happen. My feet were still solidly supported. The hellish sound and smell were receding without a trace.
That afternoon I was very silent. I thought of reporting my encounter to the neighbor who was searching for her sister, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Did I find her sister or not? I wished I could have stayed for a little longer, seen a little bit more, or better still, asked for the woman’s name. I was ashamed for not knowing the truth. Had I known that the adults didn’t expect a complete answer from us, I wouldn’t have taken my responsibilities so seriously. But vanity was my nemesis; even though I was only nine, I wanted to be the smartest person in the room. It was a shame thinking of myself scrambling on the stairs, fleeing the scene.
I recalled the pattern of the woman’s dress and compared it with my memory of the photo my neighbor showed me. On her dress, there were trumpet-shaped flowers, a brilliant hue of orange-red, like the vibrant flame of a lit torch. In the photo, her missing sister wore a dress of a similar pattern: trumpet-shaped flowers. But it was a black-and-white photo, so I didn’t know the color of the flowers. The flowers could be yellow or purple, not orange or red. Even if they were orange-red, many dresses must be made of this fabricate. Just like I’ve said before: we were living under a planned economy, which meant no one had the motivation to improve the design, increase the variety, and attract customers; otherwise, the system should be called a market economy, which only happened in capitalism, which we despised. A fabric with a certain pattern might have been produced in a textile factory in Tangshan for decades, and it wasn't an abnormality that ten thousand women wore dresses made of the same material. How much were the odds that the woman in the basement was my neighbor’s sister? I was debating in my mind. The longer I dragged on, the less willingly I talked about it. Therefore, I kept silent.
The sun was setting. Mosquitos were growing active. We had to wave our arms incessantly to keep them away. Under our communist-style tents, adults began burning plant-based incense to expel mosquitos. Adults knew everything. How annoying! The incense wafting from the tents was both invigorating and choking.
A man approached us. He wasn't from our neighborhood. My neighbors were mostly workers. They carried lunchboxes. This man carried a briefcase; he had to be a more prominent person, a cadre perhaps, or a manager, but a stranger, nonetheless. We all looked at him. He walked straight up to us. He was short and skinny. When he smiled, his face crinkled. He looked tired.
“Hi, little friends,” he greeted us.
“Just friends,” Yang glanced at him, “save the ‘little’ would be nice.”
We all sneered. He wasn’t a local, for sure, even though we couldn’t place him with his accent.
“Do any of you know how I can get to Desheng Hutong?”
“Desheng Hutong?” someone repeated.
“Yes, Desheng Hutong,” his eyes shone.
“Desheng Hutong, ha?” someone nodded.
His eyes darted from one kid to another, still hopeful.
We all had a vague idea of where it should be. North of our neighborhood, there was a vast area densely packed with crisscrossing alleys, and each alley was named so-and-so Hutong. But for this specific hutong… none of us had any idea.
“No one knows where it is?”
We kept silent, a little embarrassed.
He looked up at the tents. “Are your parents there?” he asked.
No one answered.
“Thanks, anyway.” He shrugged, turned, and started toward the tents.
“Wait!” I suddenly stood up.
He stopped and turned around, his face aglow.
I didn’t know where the hutong was. His shining eyes made my heart ache. I lowered my gaze, looking at his waist. I noticed that he had a flashlight holstered on his belt. “Cross this street and go straight for two blocks,” I started fabricating. “Turn left and walk three blocks; turn right and go straight until you meet a white pagoda.” Was it enough? No, say more. “turn right again and continue walking until you see the sign of Desheng Hutong.” As I was blabbing on, I felt better and better, as if I was really helping him. The self-doubt that surrounded me the whole afternoon was dispelled. The memory of my crawling up from the basement was erased. I won. I towered on the top of the stairs.
“Thank you!” he said warmly.
“No problem.” I sat down, exhausted, as if making up the direction had used all my energy.
He started crossing the street, the flashlight holster dancing rhythmically at his side, forward and backward, forward and backward. He reached the other side of the street. He was overwhelmed by a so-and-so Hutong.
“What was it?” Yang eyed me suspiciously. “How come you know where that Hutong is? You ever been there? When? For what?”
“Of course, I know," I straightened up my back, raising my chin, but I was collapsing inwardly.
“Can you repeat it? How many left turns? How many right turns? Say it again.”
I couldn’t repeat it. I made it up, and I'd forgotten about it.
“None of your business!” I shouted at him and gave him a hard, annoyed stare before running to the tent.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned in my cot. I was wondering where the man with the flashlight would end up. I comforted myself that it wasn’t a big deal. He was an adult; it was his responsibility to tell a liar in a kid. But what if he returned the same way, pulled me out of the tent, and announced in front of the whole world that I was a liar? That would be a nightmare. Why did I lie in the first place? Why hadn’t I thought of the consequences earlier? I was a vain person. That was all. I had been frustrated ever since the earthquake. I couldn’t bear the oppression, and I wanted revenge on the adults. I thought of every reason to justify myself. I was almost convinced that it was just a pesky slip. But I couldn’t sleep. The moment I closed my eyes, the earth cracked open, and the unnamed monster jumped out of it, roaring furiously, plunging toward me. I opened my eyes, panting and sweating. Then I saw the flashlight in a holster dancing back and forth, back and forth.
My grandmother slept by my side. She slept soundly, with occasional snoring. There were two aftershocks that night. None of the tent inhabitants, except me, was counting. They had all been used to it.
That was the first of many nights that I lost sleep.
Time fast-forwarded to 2023 when I was taking a philosophy class. In 2020, I decided to go to a college in the U.S. to study English literature. I wanted to become a writer who could write in English, and there I was, in a philosophy class. Why couldn’t I just study Shakespeare? What was this general education about? I sat there, eying the professor suspiciously. He quoted Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I heard the roar of the monster from the distant past; I saw the flashlight in a holster shining across the Pacific. The first night I lost sleep was the first time I reflected on my choices. And from there, my insomnia only grew irrevocably. Did my ability to examine my life do any good to me? I wasn’t sure. I just knew there was a time when I had been ignorant and unethical but comfortable with myself. Once upon a time, I had been a sound sleeper. That was my real childhood, unconsciously sweet, to which I could never go back.