For Survivors of Sichuan Quake, the Hard Lessons of Starting Over

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By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 21, 2008

BEIJING -- As she read the words scrawled in black spray paint on her restaurant's metal security gate, Cheng Xingfeng vowed she would not yield.

"Sichuan People: Go back to the disaster zone," the message said.

Cheng had opened her restaurant just 15 days earlier, in a sliver of a shop crammed in among sellers of fruit and plastic goods in a rundown section of south Beijing. The Beichuan Chengfeng Restaurant. The name said it all. Where she was from. Who she was. Why she had no place to go back to.

Beichuan, where she and her husband were born, was crushed by the May 12 earthquake, destroyed so utterly that the government deemed it too dangerous to rebuild there. The town's middle school collapsed under the weight of a giant rockslide, swallowing Cheng's son and hundreds of other children. His body has not been found. Cheng's 12-year-old daughter escaped injury and was featured on national television when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the devastated region and spoke with her and other schoolchildren.

In the days after the quake, Cheng and her daughter huddled with tens of thousands of other refugees at an emergency shelter in a sports stadium in nearby Mianyang. Her husband left his job in a coal mine in Shanxi province to join his family, and when he arrived, they decided they couldn't stay there, taking government handouts and waiting to be told what their future would be.

He Chuan, Cheng's 16-year-old son, had dreamed of attending the prestigious Peking University in Beijing. Cheng's husband, He Dezhi, 42, had a brother in the city. Those two connections were enough for Cheng to decide the family should strike out for the nation's capital and build a new life.

"I want to help myself, to use my bare hands," said Cheng, 39, fingering her flowered apron after serving a bowl of spicy noodles. She had once worked as a kitchen assistant, so she decided to open a restaurant.

Not everyone is happy with her choice, as evidenced by the graffiti. But Cheng ignores the ugly warning and says that others here have shown her great kindness. A few days earlier, when Cheng developed a migraine, some new friends in Beijing pooled their money to buy her medicine. A local girl often stops by and volunteers to wait tables. The owner of a Beijing hot pot restaurant has sent chefs over to Cheng's little place, instructing Cheng on how to adapt traditional Sichuan dishes for a Beijinger's palate.

The massive damage caused by the earthquake is well-known. Nearly 70,000 people are confirmed dead and another 18,000 are still missing. Millions of homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and most victims are now living in vast tent cities or portable houses made of metal sheets and Styrofoam, relying on the government for their food, water and other basic necessities. The government reported that 1.4 million farmers in 4,000 villages have dropped back into poverty because of the quake. Before the disaster, the total number of people living in poverty in Sichuan was 2.1 million, according to government statistics.

Chinese authorities are now focused on resettling millions and approving plans for a massive reconstruction effort. Perhaps sensing the extraordinary size of the undertaking, China has surprised international observers by continuing to welcome help in managing the rebuilding effort. On Wednesday, the United Nations issued an appeal to its member countries for $33.5 million to provide technical assistance for early rebuilding in remote areas.

"China has the resources and capacity to manage this on its own," said Khalid Malik, U.N. resident coordinator in China. But bringing in international organizations allows China to draw on expertise developed after earthquakes in Pakistan and Japan and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which devastated millions. "It's an important signal by the Chinese government to welcome international support in the relief and recovery effort," Malik said.

Despite the carnage, most Sichuan residents have stayed put. The government urged other provinces to free up jobs for Sichuanese, but state media reported that only 20,000 Sichuan workers have left for 19 other provinces, despite 170,000 job vacancies. Many of those interviewed after the quake said they could not imagine leaving their home towns.


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